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Fringe Festival is bigger than ever

137 shows feature plenty of LGBT-related content

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Actor Daniel Eichner takes some tips from a real rabbit (Monster) for the upcoming Capital Fringe Production of ‘HORRIBLE CHILD’ in which Eichner plays a gay bunny. ‘HORRIBLE CHILD’ is staged by gay director Jose Carrasquillo. Eichner is straight (Photo courtesy of Eichner)

The Capital Fringe Festival is back and with 137 shows it’s bigger than ever. Like always, the festival is featuring a wide-ranging selection of offbeat art, theater, music by scores of artists (some well- known, others not so much). Below is a small sampling of varied theatrical Fringe offerings of special interest to LGBT audiences.

Rebecca Gingrich-Jones has written a musical. “It didn’t start out that way but as I was writing the egg characters they suddenly started singing so I had to go with it,” she explains. “I teamed up with a friend who wrote the music and continued to work on the book and lyrics. The result is “Singing Eggs and Spermless Babies.”

The musical, says Gingrich-Jones (who is currently pursuing a master’s in playwriting at Catholic University), is without a doubt a comedy, bordering on farce. It’s the story of a lesbian couple who are trying — in oh, so many ways — to have a baby, but can’t. In their quest for mommyhood, the women inadvertently find themselves on a gay and lesbian cruise where they meet a suicidal fertility doctor, drag kings, a gay fundamentalist Christian and the actual eggs with which they’re trying to conceive.

In addition to scribe duties, Gingrich-Jones, 29, is co-producer and responsible for marketing. Her wife, queer activist Candace Gingrich-Jones (Newt’s younger stepsister), is featured in the show as “Erin,” a lesbian considering switching teams.

When casting the title character for “Horrible Child,” gay director Jose Carasquillo almost immediately thought of Daniel Eichner. “He’s a fearless actor, able to lose himself in a part,” Carasquillo explains. “I didn’t want just anyone putting on a bunny suit and hopping on stage.”

In this Fringe production penned by Lawrence Krauser, Eichner plays “Horrible,” a gay bunny rabbit, whose humanoid parents (played by Lee Ordeman and talented lesbian actress Delia Taylor) find their furry offspring so repellent that they hire an exterminator (Greg Twomey) to destroy him. Unexpectedly, the exterminator and Horrible fall in love at first sight.

“Thematically, the play is about parents coming to terms with children who grow up to be different than what they had expected, and the anxiety associated with that,” explains Carasquillo, who splits his time between Puerto Rico and D.C. “The language is inventive and acrobatic. It’s a wonderfully deranged and experimental play. I’ve wanted to do it for some time.”

“The Miss Teen Jesus Pageant” is the musical story of two gay fathers who stage a beauty contest to raise funds to send their daughter to Bible college. For their score, gay playwright Patrick di Battista and his writing partner and best friend Anne Laffoon have cleverly selected six different traditional Christian hymns, mostly from the 1800s.

“The songs have been re-arranged [by composer Ben Camp], but the lyrics remain the same,” explains di Battista. “We use ‘Blessed Assurance,’ a hymn written in 1872 by blind composer Fanny Crosby, into a gay love song. Lyrics like ‘my savior in me,’ and ‘oh what a foretaste of glory divine sound pretty good to us. If someone finds it offensive that’s OK by us.”

By “us,” di Battista refers to Laffoon and the actors and crew who make up LaGoDi, a nonprofessional theatrical group whose core members initially got to know each other while two-stepping at Remington’s on Capitol Hill. “We’re not trained in acting or singing. We think of ourselves as a tribe really,” explains di Battista. “Ours isn’t a polished one-man show. We have a cast of 10 accompanied by a small choir of five. Our productions feature lots of eye candy and rampant cross dressing.”

Written and performed by Manuel Simons, “Queer in the USA” is the tale of Johnny, a New Jersey teen obsessed with Bruce Springsteen. To Johnny, Springsteen is the ultimate man: masculine, successful, talented and compassionate. Johnny longs to be a rock star like his idol, but every time this sexually confused wannabe rocker opens his mouth to sing, out pours a lovely, almost operatic soprano that sounds more like Barbra Streisand.

Teased by his peers about his perceived sexuality and gender identity, Johnny runs away to New York City where through a series of chance encounters with a gay rocker, a gypsy woman, and others (all played by Simons) he is set on a path toward self-discovery and acceptance.

Simons’ show is heavily autobiographical: “Growing up in Philadelphia, I was on the receiving end of a lot of taunting and bullying in school. The boys considered me a girl and refused to allow me be a part of their teams,” recalls Simons, who now lives in New York. “My character Johnny seeks solace through music; I found my identity and learned to embrace myself through theater. Like him, the arts have been my sanctuary and salvation.”

Suzanne Knapik’s Fringe entry “Mother-In-Law: The Musical” is also drawn from real life. About three months after Obama was sworn into office, her partner’s mother moaned that our then freshly minted president was exclusively responsible for the country’s tanking economy. More than mildly disgusted with her mother-in-law’s absurd assessment, Knapik decided to vent her frustration by writing a musical.

“My show is basically a true story about my relationship with my partner and her mother,” explains Knapik. “It’s made up of five scenes spread out over Thanksgiving Day. Typically the three of us spend holidays and some vacation time together, and differences come up. Song titles include: ‘God Bless America Only,’ ‘Obama is a Muslim,’ and ‘Mother-In-Law Blues.’”

Will the mother-in-law be at opening night? “Oh no,” Knapik replies matter-of-factly, “She won’t be seeing the show. It’s been very tricky keeping it from her — she’s quite spry and alert. My partner will be there. I’m hoping she’ll like it.”

Capital Fringe Festival
Through July 25
capfringe.org

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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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