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McNally, Fierstein, Lypsinka to light up spring theatrical season

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With spring comes a deluge of promising new productions, many of special interest to LGBT theater-goers. Here’s a sampling.

Gay playwright Terrence McNally is a lifelong opera devotee who has lovingly infused opera themes, characters, lore and trivia into some of his best plays. In honor of the multiple Tony Award-winning playwright’s passion, the Kennedy Center (www.kennedy-center.org) presents “Terrence McNally’s Nights at the Opera,” a five-week celebration featuring three of the playwright’s most opera-centric works, through April 18.

The mini-festival kicks off with McNally’s new backstage drama, “Golden Age” (through April 4). According to press notes, “Golden Age takes place backstage at the Théâtre-Italien in Paris on the evening of Jan. 24, 1835. The occasion is the premiere of Vincenzo Bellini’s opera “I Puritani.” Assembled are the composer and his faithful friend, Francesco Florimo, and the four singers for whom the opera was expressly composed known the world over as the Puritani Quartet. Bellini’s rivalry with his fellow Italian composer, Gaetano Donizetti, for French favor was at its height. This opera was to cement his supremacy. It was to be his last.” The production features Broadway’s Marc Kudisch and out actor Jeffery Carlson as Bellini. A talented stage veteran, Carlson is also known for his role as transgender Zarf/Zoe on the daytime soap “All My Children.”

Next up is McNally’s “The Lisbon Traviata” (March 20 through April 11) — a tragicomedy about opera obsession featuring longtime gay best friends and opera buffs played by celebrated out actors Malcolm Gets and John Glover. The McNally salute closes with Tyne Daly as Maria Callas in “Master Class” (March 25 to April 18), the terrific Tony-award winning play concerning la Callas and the classes she taught at Julliard. Daly, who garnered awards for playing TV detective Mary Beth Lacey and Mama Rose on Broadway, seems an improbable choice to assay the imperious diva. But considering both ladies’ known flair for the dramatic, it just might be a case of perfect casting.

Gayer theatergoers with deep pockets might like the Kennedy Center’s Spring Gala (May 2) in honor of the center’s founding chairman Roger L. Stevens, co-hosted by Liza Minnelli and gravelly-voiced gay actor Harvey Fierstein who will already be in town performing Tevye the milkman in “Fiddler on the Roof” (April 13 to May 19) at the National Theatre (www.nationaltheatre.org).

Through March 21, you can still catch “Andy Warhol: Good for the Jews?” at Theatre J (www.washingtondcjcc.org). In his engaging one-man show, Josh Kornbluth explores his relationship to gay artist Andy Warhol’s controversial portraits of 10 world famous Jews including lesbian writer Gertrude Stein. Coming up in May at Theatre J, out actor Sarah Marshall takes the plunge in Theatre J’s production “Mikveh” (May 5 through June 5). With an all-female cast, Hadar Galron’s play takes audiences inside the secretive world of the ritual bath practiced by Orthodox Jewish women and explores the feminist consciousness and evolving role of women in contemporary Israel.

In April, Signature Theatre (www.signature-theatre.org) presents the Washington-area premiere of “[title of show]” (April 6 through June 27), a musical by then-struggling writers about struggling writers writing a musical. Written and composed by a pair of gay southerners, Hunter Bell (book) and Jeff Bowen (music and lyrics), the wittily titled work is directed by Matthew Gardiner and features a young cast including two talented Helen Hayes Award-winning actors Erin Driscoll and Jenna Sokolowski.

Also in April, Ganymede Arts’ Jeffrey Johnson plans to slip into a dress and heels on at least three separate occasions. First on April 15, he’s scheduled to unleash his pink-haired alter ego Galactica for a free evening of song and sweets at ACKC, the cocoa bar café on 14th Street. Next, Johnson reprises his portrayal of Jackie O’s kookiest cousin in “Edie Beale Live at Reno Sweeney” for two nights (April 29-30) at Cobalt before taking the act to Joe’s Pub in Manhattan.

Ganymede (www.ganymedearts.org) is also mounting a production of “Naked Boys Singing” (May 7 through June 13) at the very intimate Playbill Café. The title says it all. This lighthearted revue whose casting is definitely crucial to its success features undressed men and a score that includes numbers like “Muscle Addiction” and “Perky Little Porn Star.”

The Shakespeare Theatre Company’s (www.shakespearetheatre.org) gay artistic director Michael Kahn is staging playwright David Ives’ adaptation of Pierre Corneille’s classic French farce “The Liar” (April 6 through May 23), and the company is also presenting George Bernhard Shaw’s “Mrs. Warren’s Profession” (June 8 through July 11), an amusing look at social problems of his day starring “Designing Women’s” Dixie Carter as the title character, an aging hooker.

Gay director/actor Jay Hardee is staging Washington Shakespeare Company’s production of “Every Young Woman’s Desire” (May 20 through June 20) at the funky Clark Street Playhouse in Arlington. The company describes the show as “a darkly comic psychological thriller first produced in Santiago in the final years of Pinochet’s authoritarian rule, [it’s] about a woman’s struggle with a mysterious and dangerous intruder and goes to the heart of the brutal dictatorship’s mechanisms for control: terror, seduction and security.“

On Mondays throughout May at Church Street Theatre, Factory 449 (www.factory449.com) inaugurates its annual play reading series, “Factory Made.” The plays – all of which under consideration for full productions in the company’s upcoming seasons – include “In the Flesh,” (May 3) a prison-set nightmare adapted from a short story by gay horror write and filmmaker Clive Barker; and “Wig Out!” (May 24), a dramatic foray into the compelling and fiercely competitive subculture of drag balls penned by gay playwright Tarrell Alvin McCraney’s (“In the Red and Brown Water,” “The Brothers Size”).

At the Studio Theatre (www.studiotheatre.org), John Epperson’s now-legendary drag creation Lypsinka takes on James Kirkwood’s campy saga of two aging divas desperate to revive their fading careers in “Lypsinka in Legends!” (June 16 through July 4). With her unique blend of artistry and postmodern genius, the undisputed queen of sync will no doubt breathe new life into Kirkwood’s rickety vehicle. First performed by Mary Martin and Carol Channing in the mid-’80s, “Legends” was revived three years ago with Joan Collins and former “Dynasty” co-star Linda Evans in a multi-city tour that included D.C.

Be sure to catch “Clybourne Park” at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company (woollymammoth.net) through April 11. The play is a powerful take on race and gentrification in 1950s Chicago. And when that wraps, “Gruesome Playground Injuries” debuts May 17 and runs through June 13. It’s the story of the relationship between two boys who meet at age 8 in the nurse’s office and then grow up, enduring heartache and raising the question of how far one friend can go in helping another.

And if you’re in the mood for a bit of musical comedy fused with political satire, check out “Dancing with the Czars” from Hexagon 2010 (hexagon.org), a charitable non-profit staging this show through April 10 at the Takoma Park/Silver Spring Performing Arts Center (7995 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring, MD).

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Six die in ‘Ride the Cyclone,’ then must plead to live again

A musical appeal for second chances

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Nick Martinez in ‘Ride the Cyclone.’ (Photo by T Charles Erickson Photography)

‘Ride the Cyclone’
Through Feb. 19
Arena Stage
1101 Sixth St., S.W.
$66-$105 
Arenastage.org

What better way to bond than landing in the afterlife together? In “Ride the Cyclone,” a quirky musical now at Arena Stage, six high school choir members perish in a freak roller coaster crash. After croaking, the sextet passes into a sort of limbo where they each have the chance to argue — in song — why they deserve to live again. While vying for the top spot, they learn a lot about each other. 

Out actor Nick Martinez plays Noel Gruber, one of the young choristers. He’s the only gay kid in a rural town who works at Taco Bell. But in his torchy song “Noel’s Lament,” he sings of his dream to be a cold-hearted Parisian hooker.

Martinez says, “It’s gritty, sexy, and hilarious — not at all Disney. My character is acting out his complete fantasy and taking you along for the ride. It’s especially relatable to anyone who grew up queer.” 

And the New York-based Hispanic actor who grew up queer in Coral Springs, South Florida, understands the material: “I know Noel. So many people in the queer community know him too. Not being able to authentically be ourselves hurts. And when we finally are ourselves and know the rewards that come with that, there’s a lot of release and ecstasy.”

Fortunately, Martinez was raised in a supportive atmosphere. Still, he was reluctant to be entirely himself, but theater proved a healthy outlet. He says, “Performing was a way to express myself and go balls to the wall with whatever feelings I was having, put it in a spotlight, and share that with an entire audience.”

As a third grader Martinez found his way into theater via his older sister whom he adored. When she starred as Cinderella in the gym of their elementary school, he was there to witness her backstage quick-change into a ballgown. It was the coolest thing he’d ever seen. 

The following year, he played the Tin Man in “The Wizard of Oz.” An old video shows his opening night reaction to enthusiastic applause — first delightedly astonished and then beaming. It’s then, Martinez says, that he became hooked. 

After graduating from Elon University with a BFA in Music Theatre in 2015, he moved to New York City where he almost seamlessly transitioned into a working actor. He’s played parts in terrific shows in admirable places including Moody in “Anne of Green Gables” at Goodspeed Opera House; Doody in “Grease” at The REV; Twink (covered) in “Bat Out of Hell” at New York City Center; Crutchie in “Newsies” at John W. Engeman Theater on Long Island; and Pinball Lad, a small but memorable role in “The Who’s Tommy” at The Kennedy Center – part of Broadway Center Stage.

With music, lyrics and book by Jacob Richmond and Brooke Maxwell, “Ride the Cyclone” premiered off-Broadway in 2008 and soon developed a sort of cultish following. “There’s nothing quite like it,” Martinez says. “It’s a silly, quirky, weird little show that tugs at your heartstrings. You need to see it to get the full impact.”  

Several years ago, he was up for a different part in the show but it didn’t pan out, so when he was cast as Noel, a part he wanted badly, he was elated. Before opening at Arena in January, the Sarah Rasmussen-directed production played at Princeton’s McCarter Theatre last spring.

When the Arena run ends, Martinez is unsure what’s next for him – the actor’s eternal lament, but he seems more than OK with that. In fact, Martinez embraces the situation. 

“There’s something grounding in letting the universe take you where it takes you and trusting in that.”

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‘A Room in the Castle’ highlights the women of ‘Hamlet’

Trans director DeHais joins Folger Theatre’s Reading Room festival

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Eddie DeHais

‘The Reading Room’
‘A Room in the Castle’
Jan. 19 -21 
Folger Theatre @The Lutheran Church of the Reformation  
212 East Capitol St., S.E.
$25 for all four readings; $50 all access pass includes all 4 readings and all pre-show conversations and special events. Students free 1/2 hour before each reading and talk with valid ID.

Franco-American trans director Eddie DeHais is a triple citizen who speaks four languages and works all over the world. This week, they’re landing in Washington to direct a reading of Lauren Gunderson’s new play “A Room in the Castle,” part of Folger Theatre’s upcoming festival, The Reading Room. 

“A Room in the Castle,” focuses on the stories of the women of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” Queen Gertrude, Ophelia, and Tatiana, a middle-aged servant. The traditionally doomed and/or unheard women are seeking a level of safety and freedom in Ophelia’s bedroom, a place away from an increasingly dangerous court and mad prince where they can be themselves – something that’s forbidden in the greater world. Together they sing, laugh, and argue, trying to create hope in a hopeless situation. 

DeHais, who specializes in staging new works and reimagining classics, brings a lot to the collaboration: In addition to boatloads of energy and curiosity, they have a sharp ear and keen sense of humor. 

Recently recovered from a gnarly case of laryngitis, DeHais takes time to talk about the project. “Lauren [Gunderson] has written a beautiful piece that’s very funny, but also achingly painful. People will see themselves and see their mothers in the play’s gently blocked reading.” 

When we spoke, DeHais (who is nonbinary, trans, and bisexual) had just finished writing a greeting to the three-woman cast. In it, they spoke about the possibilities of living in a room. During the pandemic, DeHais as a grad student at Brown University in Providence spent a lot of time in a tiny apartment. Classes, community, and projects were cancelled, so they took up the ukulele and made a weekly drive to sing songs, admittedly rather badly, to their 90-something grandmother. The experience brought the two much closer together in a deeper, less predicated on structure relationship that continues now. 

Similarly, the women in “A Room in the Castle” make discoveries: Their room is a safe but dynamic place filled with wonderfully awkward moments of people trying to connect despite barriers of class and expectation. For instance, we find the Queen of Denmark getting drunk with a servant whom she never noticed before things went awry in the castle, adds DeHais.

“I love ‘Hamlet,’ but this is a play that tells the other half of the story. And because ‘Hamlet’ is a rich text which means there’s a rich story happening behind closed doors.”

The director began making attempts at coming out starting in their teens; a final public proclamation in their twenties stuck. They say it’s the best thing they ever did: “If I have to read another play about how painful it is to be a trans person I will kick the wall. And I’m asked to direct those. My life is amazing. Being me is the best thing that ever happened to me. There are very difficult parts of that story but that’s not my life.”

Based between New York and Berlin, they recently worked on a production of Salome in Paris. Next season, they’re slated to direct a lot in Seattle. “When offers come in, I ask my agent to tell whoever it is that I’m local – then I’ll get to wherever they want me.” 

DeHais closes with a nod to Folger Theatre’s director of programming/artistic director Karen Ann Daniels: “Few people know how to create community better than Karen Ann. We met when she was running the Public’s Mobile Unit in New York, and we stayed in touch. I don’t know D.C. well, so it was doubly flattering that she reached out. And where better than D.C. to talk about political structures that are silencing us?”

Other new plays featured in The Reading Room are Al Letson’s “Julius X,” a re-visioning of “The Tragedy of Julius Caesar” set during the life and times of Malcolm X; “Hamlet,” a radical bilingual New York City-set reimagining of the original created by Reynaldo Piniella and Emily Lyon; “Our Verse in Time to Come,” a Shakespeare inspired piece about legacy and storytelling by Malik Work and Karen Ann Daniels.

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‘Safe Word’ explores Dom-sub relationship

An emotionally stunted masochist confronts self-loathing

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Mauricio Pita stars in ‘Safe Word.’ (Photo by Lauren Emerson) 

In “Safe Word,” out Venezuelan-American actor Mauricio Pita plays Cesar, an emotionally stunted masochist who’s forced to confront his self-loathing after his Dom, Bear (Jonathan Adriel), reinterprets the rules of their game. 

“For the film’s characters, it’s about taking it to the next level,” says Pita, 37. “The experience has been very personal because a lot of the characters’ stories are also my own. Consequently, I put myself in a very vulnerable position. Still, I felt I had no choice but to tell this story.” 

A short but visually and emotionally compelling work, “Safe Word” is produced by Tepui Media (a name inspired by the flat-top mountains in the Guiana Highlands of South America). Prior to the pandemic, Pita, who serves as the company’s executive director, was mostly involved in theater, but increasingly, film has become his medium of choice. 

Pita also works at Arena Stage where he manages and collaborates with the director of education in executing the artistic vision of Arena’s devised theater program, Voices of Now (VON), which produces 10 original works each season. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Mauricio managed VON’s transition from a theater festival to a feature film.

Filmed over about a week last summer in a rented D.C. apartment, “Safe Word” wasn’t easy for Pita who as producer, filmmaker, in addition to actor, likened the experience to exposing himself through layers. He says, “Awards and money would be great, but my measure of success was getting the film made, getting to the finish line.”

After debuting “Safe Word” at GALA Hispanic Theatre in November, the goal has been to get the film seen. It’s currently slated to screen at the upcoming Ocean City Film Festival and Washington International Cinema Festival at Miracle Theatre; they’re also focusing on LGBTQ festivals.  

WASHINGTON BLADE: What was your inspiration for the piece? 

MAURICIO PITA: My own inner voices. I’d share journal entries with Eva von Schweinitz, our storywriter, and she divided my experience into two characters. I really had no choice but to share my feelings. I felt compelled. I no longer wanted to feel scared.

BLADE: Was there a process?

PITA:  It was a collaboration. I wrote up the idea that I wanted to make a film about my inner voices and self-conflict. I handed over journal entrees and she interviewed me. It was like therapy sessions.  

Eva then presented me with story options including superhero/ romantic comedy/ and a bondage story, the one I thought was most dangerous and scariest to do. If we failed it would certainly be the most embarrassing. 

BLADE: Can you talk about your inner dialogue?

PITA: Sure, it’s about me not being loveable. Me being queer made me think I wouldn’t be loved. Growing up I was scared of being gay, I saw being gay as a death sentence. Those feelings don’t just go away because you come out. 

BLADE: Does it get better?

PITA: I’m 37, more open, but it’s not automatically fixed. Over many years of therapy new positive voices were introduced but even so those negative voices aren’t entirely wiped out. They argue in my head and that’s something I wanted to investigate.

“Safe Word” asks how comfortable are we at choosing our own pain? And what could hold us back from connecting to ourselves and to one another? In the film, they arrive at a paradigm-shifting result neither one of them expects.

BLADE: How did you select Jonathan to co-star? “Safe Word” is a very intimate piece. 

PITA: By the third or fourth draft we were looking at casting. And though I didn’t know him that well, I immediately thought of him. 

His body is insane, muscularly imposing. Yet there’s a softness that I was intrigued by. I suggested him to our director, Christopher Cunetto. We scheduled a screen test, basically looking for chemistry. Jonathan was phenomenal. He took it very seriously; he came prepared and ready. I had a really good time working with him.

BLADE: Are you into bondage offscreen? 

PITA: Well, of course, I am. I like role playing. I’ve been ashamed about stuff like that my whole life. But fuck it. Why not? I’ve learned that you have power in those situations even when you’re the sub. After all, my character Cesar has the safe word. He can stop everything. That’s a lot of power.

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