ARLINGTON, VA Included in the D.C. area’s vibrant theater scene is a tiny operation dedicated to resurrecting important and neglected plays of the 20th century. Professional non-Equity troupe American Century Theater is celebrating its 10th anniversary with a captivating remount of “Moby Dick Rehearsed,” Orson Welles’ seldom produced 1955 play from the Herman Melville classic.
Initially produced by the theater in 1997, “Rehearsed” is described by artistic director and co-founder Jack Marshall as the production that best defines American Century’s mission of challenging auds of all ages. He considers it a twofer that not only showcases Welles’ “audacious adaptation” of the sea adventure, but also “the essence of what makes live theater special.”
Welles originally wrote it as a radio play and then modified it long after the demise of his Mercury Theater as a bare bones stage production. The only play Welles ever wrote, it has since been “wiped from the memory of America,” claims Marshall.
“Rehearsed” is classically Welles, performed on a sparsely equipped stage by actors with makeshift props and costumes, and totally dependent on sound, lights and audience imagination. In ACT’s current production, closing April 30, Ahab is played by Equity actor Charles Matheny.
Indeed, the 50-year-old play is nicely suited for today’s theater economies with its 15-member cast and “Our Town” feel. Director Marshall has made further adaptations to the script and added numerous touches, including original staging of the play’s riveting climax.
American Century Theater was launched with help from Arlington County’s arts incubator program, which also assisted the nearby Signature Theater, co-founded by Eric Schaeffer. Signature staked its claim on musicals and has since become one of the area’s top venues. The lower-profile Century is hoping to acquire its own space soon, following a decade performing at a county-owned black box theater, says Marshall.
It is one of a handful of theaters in the U.S. that focuses on “lost” works. Along with “Rehearsed,” its successes have included George Axelrod’s “The Seven-Year Itch,” George S. Kaufman’s “Hollywood Pinafore” and Marc Blitzstein’s “The Cradle Will Rock.” Two years ago, the theater mounted “Mr. Roberts,” which was produced by the Kennedy Center this season.
Its goal is to be true to the original production when possible. As a rule, says Marshall, dramas tend to translate better to current auds than comedies, which are more apt to show their age. Revivals of the Murray Schisgal comedy “Luv” and Herb Gardner’s “A Thousand Clowns” didn’t click, while Paul Zindel’s “The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds” worked as a drama but “didn’t play funny at all,” he says.
Upcoming revivals this season include Eugene O’Neill’s “The Emperor Jones” and the staged concert version of the 1943 musical comedy “One Touch of Venus,” with music by Kurt Weill, lyrics by Ogden Nash and book by Nash and S.J. Perlman. Next season’s productions include Lillian Helman’s “The Autumn Garden,” Woody Allen’s “The Floating Lightbulb,” the Julian Berry play “Lenny,” Edgar Lee Masters’ “The Spoon River Anthology” and the dramatic revue “USA” by Paul Shire and John Dos Passos.