Backstage: 'Beyond the Horizon,' Taffety Punk's 'Reals,' Belarus Free Theatre

By Jane Horwitz

"I'm not noted for my realism," jokes director Kathleen Akerley.

Indeed, the artistic director of the small, intellectually ambitious Longacre Lea company is known in Washington theater circles for her love of the avant-garde and experimental, whether at her own company or guest-directing elsewhere.

In her latest project, Akerley is staging Eugene O'Neill's earliest full-length play, "Beyond the Horizon," first produced on Broadway in 1920, for Arlington's American Century Theater. It will run Friday through Feb. 12 at Gunston Arts Center, 2700 S. Lang St.

"Beyond the Horizon" tells the tragic tale of a middle-class farm family torn apart by brothers who refuse to follow their dreams, and who tether loved ones to the wrong dreams, as well. The characters as written, Akerley says, can be stereotypes: Andy, the forthright farmer; Robert, his dreamy, consumptive brother; Ruth, the dewy farm girl who grows gaunt with postmarital disappointment. The language, Akerley notes, can be "starchy." For example, "You're wedded to the soil. You're as much a product of it as an ear of corn is, or a tree. Father is the same."

Akerley says she has tackled the script (after removing nearly 11 pages of O'Neill's obsessive directions, such as calling for two horses onstage) by having her cast go for psychological plausibility within every line. The goal, says the director, is to make the characters "modern, not in terms of style, but in terms of what we recognize we now want to see in characters."

"If I can get that to happen in this O'Neill, even if the language is old-fashioned, we don't worry about the language, because if you've gotten your details of human interaction to be that specific, that's what will resonate," she says.

When she watches her cast run through "Beyond the Horizon," Akerley says, "I'm kind of amazed, actually. I'm not bored watching it, and it's a long [expletive] play, with a great deal of people talking about why they shouldn't talk about something. And the stage manager and I, when we watch it, there are scenes that still make me tear up."

Taffety Punk's 'Reals'

A country's fascination with superheroes - and some real people's longing to be superheroes - is the subject of "Reals," a new play by Gwydion Suilebhan, resident playwright of Taffety Punk Theatre Company.

"It wasn't a particular interest in people who put on costumes and try and save the world," says the playwright. "It was really more why does America care about this genre so deeply." Suilebhan cites not only the popularity of superhero films, but the recent emergence of real people who suit up in Spandex and try to help folks in the real world. He notes the Capital City Super Squad in Washington and the Washington state crimefighter who calls himself Phoenix Jones, who made news last week for stopping a car theft.

A reading of "Reals" - one of Taffety Punk's rough 'n' ready Bootleg shows - will take place at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Corner Store, 900 South Carolina Ave. SE. Since the Capital Hill area arts venue is small, live streaming of the reading will be offered in collaboration with Arena Stage: Taffety Punk regular Kimberly Gilbert will be in the cast, directed by Joel David Santner.

In Suilebhan's play, three people meet in secret, two of them in full masked regalia, to discuss forming a superhero team. They must overcome mutual distrust, personal shortcomings and moral as well as martial-arts challenges to achieve their dream.

Suilebhan had a big success with Taffety Punk a couple of seasons back with his math-and-theater-inspired play "Let X." He has tackled a wide range of topics for the stage, and says he's particularly taken with ideas that pit scientific or naturalistic world views against religious ones - yet another part of the American zeitgeist he likes to mine, along with our love of superheroes.

The international scene

Theater J will host a locally produced reading of the Belarus Free Theatre's piece "Being Harold Pinter" at 7:30 p.m. Monday at 1529 16th St. NW, inside the D.C. Jewish Community Center.

The underground troupe from a onetime part of the Soviet Union (now an independent, Soviet-style republic near Latvia and Lithuania) that is still ruled by a dictatorship, barely escaped its country's secret police to appear in New York Public Theater's Under the Radar Festival of international theater, which ends Sunday. Unlike the New York performances, which the Belarussian company is performing with English surtitles, the Washington reading of "Being Harold Pinter" will be performed in English by D.C. actors. The piece explores links between personal and state-sponsored violence, using excerpts of the late Pinter's plays and his Nobel Prize acceptance speech. After the Theater J performance, the artistic directors of the Belarus Free Theatre will join in a post-show discussion. The event is one of several around the United States in which theater folks are showing solidarity with the troupe. Seats can be reserved by e-mailing

Theater J is also launching its "Voices From a Changing Middle East" festival, which includes a two-week run of "Return to Haifa," Saturday to Jan. 30 from the Cameri Theatre of Tel Aviv, as well as readings of nine more plays between Jan. 21 and Feb. 27.

Horwitz is a freelance writer.


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