September 9, 2010 | by Patrick Folliard
Gender bending the boards

D.C.’s new fall theater season promises to be one of its better in terms of LGBT presence on stage and off. While a lot of local theatrical offerings veer more toward musical and/or cheery material this season, there is undoubtedly a wide range of shows to see. Here’s a sampling of what’s coming up.

In October, famed elderly British drag queen and gay rights activist Bette Bourne is bringing his solo act to the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater for three nights only (Oct. 28 to 30). Bourne’s celebrated “A Life in Three Acts” follows his post-war childhood to his experiences with a Notting Hill drag commune in the 1970s and his seminal role in the formation of the Gay Liberation Front in Britain, as well as his years with the world-famous BLOOLIPS gay theater company.

Other enticing scheduled offerings at the Kennedy Center include the national tour of Broadway’s first great rock musical “Hair” (Oct. 26 to Nov. 21) and the Lincoln Center Theater revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s classic musical “South Pacific” (Dec. 14 to Jan. 16) for a holiday engagement in the Opera House.

There’s a lot to lure Blade readers to Signature Theatre in convenient Shirlington Village this fall. Currently playing is rock musical “Chess” (through Oct. 3), a Cold War love story set against the very intense international chess circuit. Marvelously reworked and staged by the Signature’s gay artistic director Eric Schaeffer, “Chess” features a top notch cast including talented Broadway regulars Jill Paice, Jeremy Kushnier and actor Euan Morton (best known for playing Boy George in “Taboo”).

Other imminent Signature productions include Ken Ludwig’s new comedy “A Fox on the Fairway” (Oct. 12 to Nov. 14). A tribute to the great English farces of the 1930s and ’40s, the madcap romp is set to be directed by John Rando ands stars the very talented (and gay) Holly Twyford. In “Walter Cronkite is Dead” (Oct. 26 to Dec. 19) by gay playwright Joe Calarco, two very different women (played by Helen Hayes-winning favorites Nancy Robinette and Sherri L. Edelen) find themselves sharing a table in an airport. Representing two sides of the culture wars – one red state, the other blue state – they reluctantly open up and ultimately find common ground. Calarco also directs. And in December, Schaeffer directs Broadway vet Florence Lacey as Norma Desmond in Signature’s hotly anticipated take on the musical “Sunset Boulevard” (Dec. 7 to Feb. 13).

The Washington Shakespeare Company (WSC) opens its season with “By Any Other Name: an Evening of Shakespeare in Klingon,” starring gay actor George Takai, best known as Mr. Sulu from “Star Trek.” This fun-filled production includes performances of well-known Shakespearean scenes in both English and Klingon, the language spoken by the fictional warrior race in the sci-fi cult favorite. The special one-night even (Sept. 25) takes place at the Rosslyn Spectrum in Arlington.

After finally leaving its funky warehouse location on Clark Street, WSC is set to christen its new home at Arts Space for Everyone (ASE) in Rosslyn with a futuristic production of Shakespeare’s “Richard III” (Oct. 21 to Dec. 12). Tackling the play’s ruthless title hunchback is company veteran Frank Britton, 31.

“When I first heard that WSC was mounting ‘Richard III,’ I set my sights on playing Richard’s ill-fated brother Clarence. I’m a character actor who typically plays supporting roles and I’m fine with that,” says Britton who’s bisexual. “So when [co-directors and life partners Christopher Henley and Jay Hardee] offered me the lead it felt too good to be true. And because there are not a lot of opportunities for African-American actors to play Richard, I’m especially excited and grateful.”

For fall, Factory 449: a Theatre Collective is presenting a world premiere production of Eric Ehn’s “The Saint Plays,” an intriguing six-part work that, according to collective member and the play’s director John Moletress, “takes Roman Catholic saints and smashes them into a contemporary narrative.”

At just a little over a year old, the company — whose name references Warhol’s factory and the date the group was established – is still finding its aesthetic. Like the collective’s successful premier production “4.48 Psychosis,” “The Saint Plays” will incorporate film and video elements. Also like its predecessor, this production isn’t very long — while individual parts run from six to 31 minutes, the entire play clocks in at about two hours.

One segment dealing with one of the more commonly known subjects – Saint Joan — places the Maid of Orleans (played by Zehra Fazal) in an undetermined country wracked by civil war.

“I’m interested in the gender issues surrounding Joan,” says Moletress who’s gay. “When she died her charred naked body was paraded to prove that she was actually a woman and hence had no real power to begin with. For me, it ties in with DADT and how in order to serve some soldiers must hide certain aspects of themselves.

“Typically the church doesn’t like to talk about sexuality and gender,” Moletess says. “Part of what is so great about Ehn’s plays is how they travel through time and address these issues.”

Following on the heels of last season’s success, “Naked Boys Singing,” Ganymede Arts is anchoring its fall arts festival with another musical — William Finn and James Lapine’s “Falsettos” (tonight through Oct. 10). The story of Marvin, a gay New Yorker who grapples with his ex-wife, young son and gravely ill lover Whizzer, “Falsettos” is a musical comedy about life, loss and love.

Sometimes termed an AIDS play, the Tony Award-winning musical is more than that, says Jeffrey Johnson, Ganymede’s gay artistic director who is both staging and playing Marvin in the production.

“This is the story of the universal struggle that draws people close and defines what a family is. Yes, the characters are brought together by someone dying from AIDS, but any other tragedy could have been the catalyst.”

Ganymede’s latest venue is the affectionately named  “Noi’s Nook,” an improvised theater located in the back of  “Go Mama Go!” a 14th Street corridor gift shop formerly run by the company’s late and great patron Noi Chudnoff. The intimacy of the space and the fact that a lot of Finn’s songs are kept alive by cabaret singers has inspired Johnson to strip away scene changes and focus on the telling of the story.

“Falsettos sticks with Ganymede’s mission of telling the LGBT story,” Johnson says. “It’s not some 42nd Street, hyped up, toe-tapping good time. It’s an entertaining musical about real issues.”

At Woolly Mammoth, Sarah Ruhl’s funny and poignant take on turn-of-the-century hysteria treatments, “In the Next Room or the vibrator play” runs through Oct. 3. Gay actor Sarah Marshall is featured.

Also this fall, the Studio Theatre presents “Superior Donuts” (opening Nov. 10) from Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tracy Letts (“August: Osage County”). The comedy follows the unlikely friendship between a cranky white Chicago shop owner and an ambitious black teenager with a secret. Studio’s talented gay associate producing artistic director Serge Seiden directs.

Shakespeare Theatre Company  is kicking off its season with “All’s Well That Ends Well”” (Sept. 7 through Oct. 24) staged by the company’s now legendary gay artistic director Michael Kahn. Set just prior to World War I, the production features Tony Roach as Bertram and Marsha Mason as the Countess of Rossillion. For readers under 40, Mason was a big movie star in the 1970s.

Alexandria’s MetroStage opens its season with the world premiere of “Glimpses of the Moon” (Sept. 8 through Oct. 17), a Jazz Age musical based on an Edith Wharton novel. Helmed by David Marquez, a gay New York-based director/choreographer, the production features a fabulous cast including Natascia Diaz, Lauren Williams and Sam Ludwig.

Next month, Arena Stage inaugurates its superbly renovated waterfront campus with a production of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic “Oklahoma!” (Oct. 22 through Dec. 26). Arena’s artistic director, Molly Smith, stages a truly diverse cast in the fabled show that defined the modern American musical. The production features local favorite E. Faye Butler as Aunt Eller, and hot gay New York-based actor Nicholas Rodriguez as Curly.

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