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Annual "Hexagon" show in Washington aids charities through Triangle-style humor

By Louis Jacobson ’92

For a few Princetonians, Triangle Club has served as a stepping stone to a professional acting career. But for a handful of alums in the Washington area, a group called Hexagon enables them to replicate the Triangle experience on an annual basis.

Every spring for the past 47 years, Hexagon — an all-volunteer, amateur comedy troupe — has mounted a musical political-satire revue in the Triangle mold. This year’s show, It’s a Grand Old Gag, was put together with the help of a half dozen Tigers. The show ran for three weeks in March at the Duke Ellington School for the Arts, with singing, dancing, and countless jokes at the expense of Washington’s movers and shakers.

Hexagon has a long connection with Princeton, beginning with its founding in 1955 by Charles Ilsley ’51, a Triangle veteran, and some of his Washington friends, mainly as an outlet for fun after having finished stints in the military. Coed from the start, Hexagon got its name from doubling the number of sides in "Triangle."

Open to anyone in the Washington area who has a hankering to perform or work backstage, the troupe attracts lots of Princetonians, many of them veterans of Triangle. Darrell Capwell ’90 is Hexagon’s president. Other active alums include Ilsley, Fred Talcott ’66, Shelley Klein ’86, Thankful Vanderstar ’88, Dean Manson ’89, George Beronio ’90 and Laura Estes ’97.

"The people who come here have one thing in common: We all love the theater — performing, and being around other theater people," Capwell says.

For the show’s 50-odd writers, the events of September 11 posed a stiff challenge. "This is the most patriotic show we’ve ever done," says Capwell, a public-relations specialist for the American Federation of Teachers. "We made a conscious effort this year to tone down the deep, cutting jabs."

Which is not to say that the splashy patriotic numbers of It’s a Grand Old Gag overshadowed terrorism-related material altogether. "One Nation Under Jihad" spoofs the making of Osama Bin Laden’s videos by envisioning them directed by a flamboyant artiste who continually gets annoyed by the weak acting skills of Bin Laden and his Al Qaeda comrades. "Stepping on the Constitution" offers a searing critique of the anti-civil-liberties moves made by the federal government since September 11.

Other numbers in this year’s show were based on more-traditional (and sillier) forms of Hexagon humor. In "Where’s Dick?" a linguistically challenged George W. Bush, flanked by a coterie of female backup singers, winkingly ponders the precise location of Vice President Dick Cheney. "Movie Wizards" cleverly tweaks Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings as being essentially the same movie. And in "Nothing to Hide," the "daughter" of Richard Nixon’s secretary, Rose Mary Woods, confesses to her role helping Enron shred vital documents, along with her boyfriend, "Arthur Andersen."

A rotating cast of celebrity newsreaders, including Good Morning America’s Tony Perkins, offered a series of newsy, one-liner interludes dubbed "Hexagon Updates." In years past, Sam Donaldson, Cokie Roberts, Janet Reno, and Donna Shalala have taken the stage. Hexagon also hosts a Congress Night with actual members of Congress performing.

For anyone with a work and family life, the Hexagon time commitment is steep. The writers and musical arrangers begin assembling and refining their ideas in September. Beginning in January, the cast rehearses for five or six days a week. Once the show begins its run, performances are held nightly Wednesday through Sunday.

The quickly evolving Washington news cycle means that Hexagon members face plenty of last minute rewriting, says Estes, an engineering project manager who served as associate stage manager. This year, she says, most of the show was finished two weeks prior to opening. But one number — the one about Enron and Arthur Andersen — wasn’t settled until four nights before the curtain went up.

Ilsley recalls that Hexagon was created for fun, not charity. After the first show, when Hexagon found itself with an unexpected profit of $2,600, members decided to donate it to the American Cancer Society. They quickly came to realize that the charitable orientation could be a big draw for audiences. Now, charities compete vigorously with each other to become a Hexagon beneficiary. A year and a half before a show is held, Hexagon’s 12-member board chooses one charity, following a lengthy application-and-interview process. This year’s show raised $115,000 for two hospice organizations. Hexagon’s volunteer activities inspired President Reagan to give Hexagon a President’s Volunteer Action Award in 1987, and Washingtonian magazine named Hexagon a Washingtonian of the year in 1993 — the first time that award was ever given to an institution.

A subset of Hexagon known as the Hexagoners performs revues for hire at social functions around the D.C. area. But over the long term, Capwell says he’d like to see Hexagon travel the country to perform a full revue, as Triangle does. He’d also like to see the day when Hexagon acquires its own space, rather than paying rent for its theater run and hopscotching around to different rehearsal venues.

Still, he and others find the Hexagon experience intoxicating. "It adds a bit of excitement to an otherwise one-dimensional existence," says Dean Manson ’89, a lawyer and keyboardist.

Louis Jacobson is a staff correspondent at National Journal magazine in Washington.