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Sesame Street meets South Park

Avenue Q brings irreverence to Shakespeare Theatre

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Puppets have full-on puppet sex. Racism and pornography and unemployment are also addressed head-on. Hilarity and irreverence ensue.

But somewhere Kermie is having a panic attack at the arrival of “Avenue Q,” set on a street with a string of tenements in a low-rent, outer-outer borough of New York City.

It is sufficiently reminiscent of Sesame Street, on public TV since 1969 and beloved by Generation Y for its politically correct multi-cultural neighborhood and ethnically diverse families, to merit the following statement in the playbill: “Avenue Q has not been authorized or approved in any manner by the Jim Henson Company or Sesame Workshop, which have no responsibility for its content.”

Even so, the show is basically an homage to the creators of Sesame Street. It plays at the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre until Aug. 15, and is a first-rate, road-show version of the original, innovative, foul-language Broadway musical that in 2004 won the Best Musical Tony Award, snatching it from the hands of “Wicked.”

As for “Q” standing for “Queer,” get over it. It’s really just not that big a deal. However, Bert and Ernie (whoops, I mean Rod and Nicky in this show) are gay, or at least ready to come out, but only after first swearing they’re not, as they sing the duet “If You Were Gay,” while insisting, a la Seinfeld, “not that there’s anything wrong with that.” And hey, no one else in the cast, including Trekkie Monster, a porn-obsessed Muppettish furball facsimile of the Cookie Monster, cares one way or the other.

Remember, most of these characters are puppets, designed by the ingenious Rick Lyon, who created the role of Trekkie Monster (“Me want porn!”) in the original Broadway production but who is also a puppeteer and designer with more than 25 years experience in theater, film and TV, including “Sesame Street.” He and his company, The Lyon Puppets, build all the puppets, which cost up to $10,000 each and are so-called single-rod, double-rod and live-hands puppets depending on how the head and arms are animated by the actor serving as puppeteer who also generally supplies the voice. The folks remain in full view of the audience and make no attempt to conceal themselves or their lip movements. The puppets interact with each other and three human characters.

The Trekkie Monster is now “acted” by Michael Liscio, Jr., who also plays Nicky, but does an especially bravura job bringing out the reclusive porn-lover’s gruff charm. As for Nicky, he is a sweet but messy and jobless character living with Rod, a closeted Republican investment banker (acted by Brent Michael DiRoma, making his touring debut on “Avenue Q”).

As for the show’s gay subtext, Rod likes nothing more than sitting home leafing through his favorite book, “Broadway Musicals of the 1940s.” One night a sleepless Rod thinks he hears Nicky say, “I love you, Rod,” in his sleep and is jubilant that his secret crush on the slacker is requited. However, it turns out that it’s actually Rod who is dreaming all this, and Rod later angrily denies that he is gay, insisting that he has a girlfriend named Alberta who lives in Vancouver, but no one has ever seen his “beard” and he sometimes mixes up her name.

Other story lines are woven into “Avenue Q,” including parables about coming-of-age and finding “purpose” in life.

“Avenue Q” began off-Broadway in 2003 and moved to Broadway later that year and by now has spawned an entire industry. The show was conceived by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, who also wrote the music and lyrics with the book written by Jeff Whitty.

Lopez is now working on a new stage musical written with the creators of “South Park” and Whitty is collaborating with Jason Moore (the show’s New York and London and national tour director) on a musical version of Armistead Maupin’s tale of gay sex in the city, “Tales of the City: The Musical.”

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Theater

‘Nancy,’ soaked in ‘80s nostalgia, is ‘queer AF’

Mosaic production led by out director Ken-Matt Martin

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Ken-Matt Martin (Photo courtesy Martin)

‘Nancy’ 
Through April 21
Mosaic Theater Company at Atlas Performing Arts Center
1333 H St., N.E.
$53-$70
Mosaictheater.org

Set in 1985, smack dab in the middle of the Reagan years, Rhiana Yazzie’s “Nancy” is totally soaked in nostalgia: shoulder pads, high hair, Van Halen, etc. For some theatergoers, it jogs the memory and for others serves as an introduction to an alien era.

Out director Ken-Matt Martin describes the production (now at Mosaic Theater) as “queer AF.” He continues, “But that’s true with everything I touch. My aesthetics and interests are unapologetically queer. When you first walk into theater, you see a big ass picture of Nancy’s face. The whole play is kind of set on her face.”

Martin, who puts his age as “somewhere over 30,” gives a brief rundown via telephone: “‘Nancy’ places two women on parallel tracks and we get to watch them on a collision course. Esmeralda [Anaseini Katoa], a Navajo mother and advocate determined to improve the condition of her family and reservation. Her story is juxtaposed to that of Nancy Reagan [Lynn Hawley] who’s busy at the White House consulting with society astrologer Joan Quigley to help guide Reagan [Michael Kevin Darnall] and his administration. The women’s worlds come together over Nancy’s direct ancestral connection to Pocahontas.” 

The busy storyline also includes a moment surrounding Rock Hudson’s final days, a moment when well-coiffed, clothes-crazy Nancy was presented with the opportunity to make a difference but chose not to. 

“And the work doesn’t let Nancy off the hook,” adds Martin. “It’s a full meal of a play.”

Produced in partnership with New Native Theatre based in the Twin Cities, Mosaic’s epic offering, a very D.C. play about ancestry and ambition, almost looks at Ron and Nancy as cartoon characters but isn’t without empathy.  

Martin and Yazzie both love satire and absurdity; they enjoy comedy and things that are funny until they’re not. So, the evening shifts in tone as it moves into more serious areas, particularly an exploration of how the ‘80s and Reagan’s failed trickle-down agenda set the stage for many of today’s problems.  

The director’s way into theater was as a child actor. After successfully begging his mother to drive him from their native Little Rock, Ark., to a regional Atlanta audition, he booked an appearance on Nickelodeon’s landmark series “All That” and snagged an agent in the process. He continued to act for a time before becoming interested in other facets of showbiz. 

After graduating with an MFA in directing from Brown University/Trinity Repertory Company, Martin embarked on a terrifically busy schedule. In addition to freelance directing, he has helmed and helms various prestigious companies as artistic director and managing producer (Pyramid Theatre Company in Des Moines, IA, Victory Gardens Theater in Chicago, and was recently appointed Interim Artistic Director of Baltimore Center Stage and Arkansas Repertory Theatre.)

Currently an itinerant professional (Martin gave up his place in Chicago and hops from job to job where they house him), he says, “It can get a little old, but overall, not bad at all.” 

Next up, Martin is directing Olney Theatre’s production “Long Way Down,” the adaptation of a Young Adult novel by DMV native Jason Reynolds. “It’s a big regional tryout that after a limited engagement in Olney leaves for the Apollo Theatre in New York. I’m excited.” 

Martin is at home with plays that are tricky to stage, making him a good fit for “Nancy” with its multiple locations, scope, and scale. He’s enjoyed the challenge of the work’s collapsing time lines and the playwright’s tough, complicated, smart, and fast-moving language. 

“Perhaps most importantly,” he adds. “Rhiana has entrusted me with the opportunity to tell this very unique story, a story that can resonate with Native people and Native audiences. This part is very new to me as a director.”

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Theater

Talented pair of local queer actors tackles ‘Little Shop of Horrors’

Ford’s production features terrific score

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Chani Wereley (Audrey) and Derrick D. Truby Jr. (Seymour) in the 2024 Ford’s Theatre production of Little Shop of Horrors. (Photo by Scott Suchman)

‘Little Shop of Horrors’ 
Through May 18
Ford’s Theatre
511 10th St., N.W.
$33-$95
Fords.org 

Ever since premiering off-Broadway in 1982, “Little Shop of Horrors” has drawn a devoted following of avid audiences as well as performers eager to act in the show. Now playing at Ford’s Theatre, the doo-wop, dark comedy features a terrific cast including a wildly talented pair of local queer actors who’ve longed to appear in the show since they were kids. 

Set in the urban 1960s, Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s hit show with a terrific score follows the wacky rise of Seymour, a nebbishy florist in a Skid Row shop who changes his fortunes by unintentionally marketing an exotic, human eating plant.  

Chani Wereley, 28, who plays Seymour’s love interest Audrey, a hyper femme downtowner with an edge, has had her on eye the role for years. Wereley says, “Audrey’s been around the block more than once, but I approach her as a person who moves through the world with love and hope.”

The queer D.C. native adds, “On long trips to visit family in Canada or Florida, the first thing we’d do is pop a ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ video [film version] into the car’s VHS player. I’ve watched is so many times, I could quote the whole movie to you.”

After auditioning to play Audrey in director Kevin S. McAllister’s production at Ford’s, Wereley never thought she’d book the part, and when they said she got it, she cried.  

Similarly, Tobias A. Young, 34, the pansexual actor who voices the part of the bloodthirsty plant affectionately dubbed Audrey II, explains his intense interest in the work: “I started watching the film in ’86. Growing up as a little gay boy in Calvert County, Md., I wanted to be blonde Audrey [played by Ellen Green in the movie]. I didn’t know much about musicals at the time, but I was absorbed.” 

When asked by Ford’s to play the voracious plant Audrey II without auditioning, his reply was an unhesitant “yes.” 

Voicing a role requires Young to sing from backstage in a black box rigged with monitors and a mixing board. He says, “people ask if I’m singing from inside of the ever-growing, scary plant. No, I’m not, and that’s fine. But let’s face it, actors love to be seen on stage, but I don’t feel entirely unseen as Audrey II.”

He’s worked hard and successfully with formidable puppeteers Ryan Sellers and Jay Frisby to bring parts of himself to the carnivorous plant — his sassiness, own movements, and even a tilt of his head; their efforts have drawn the actual Young into the show. 

Both Wereley and Young possess gorgeous, emotive voices as evidenced by Wereley’s striking rendition of Audrey’s “Suddenly Seymour,” and Young’s soulful “Feed Me (Git It).” Additionally, both actors are also big on queer representation in theater. 

When her young pals were listening to Britney Spears, Wereley was dancing to retro tunes like “Mashed Potato Time,” and her favorite song to this day, the Shirelle’s girl group anthem “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow.” As Audrey, Wereley eschews the character’s usual platinum hair for a bouncy brunette, cherry-streaked wig, tight pencil skirts, swing coats, and her very own half-sleeve tattoo. 

“It’s important for people to see themselves on stage,” she says. “Seeing me or someone like me is inherently interesting. Being that person on Instagram or with the institution, cast, or audiences is meaningful. It’s important.”

In 2011, a couple years after finishing high school, Young landed a part in “Dream Girls” at Toby’s Dinner Theatre, and he’s been working professionally ever since. Growing up, he didn’t see a lot of himself – Black and queer – on social media. He now wants to be open and honest for those out there who might not feel seen, he says

An introvert who lets everything loose on the stage, Young says, “theater is a safe space for queer people. That’s the first place we feel safe, particularly in school. And this is why we need theaters in schools, now more than ever.”

He adds, “What’s great about Ford’s is its surprises, especially when they switch up casting. It’s meaningful to see the shows you love, but why not see them with a twist? Using unexpected actors and incorporating queer people just makes it that much better.”

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Woman crashes ex-girlfriend’s wedding to a man in new play

Nonbinary playwright Bryna Turner brings ‘At the Wedding’ to Studio

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Playwright Bryna Turner (Photo by Lila Barth)

‘At the Wedding’
Through April 21
Studio Theatre
1501 14th St., N.W.
$45-$99
Studiotheatre.org

For nonbinary playwright Bryna Turner, the way to theater was first as an actor. But as gender non-conforming, they couldn’t really see a future in it, so they decided to write their own plays.

“At the Wedding,” Turner’s play about a woman named Carlo who crashes her ex-girlfriend’s wedding to a man, is currently making its area debut at Studio Theatre with a production staged by out director Tom Story.  The comedy made its world premiere at LCT3 at Lincoln Center Theater and was featured in the New York Times Best of 2022 “Unforgettable Theatrical Moments” category. 

Brooklyn-based Turner, 33, is inspired by experience, storytelling, and language. With “At the Wedding,” they humorously explore loneliness, estrangement, and a love for living.

WASHINGTON BLADE:  How do we meet Carlo? 

BRYNA TURNER: In the opening monologue, Carlo is at the kids table at a wedding reception telling them not to make her mistake. You’ll fall in love but that will only break your heart. That kicks the show off and this is who we’re dealing with.  

BLADE: How was falling in love for you? 

TURNER: My experience when I fell in love was that I was joining the human race. But then comes heartbreak…. that other thing everyone was always talking about. Poems and music took on new meaning. 

BLADE: But you can find a laugh in pain? 

TURNER: Comedic tone is important to me because that’s how I view the world. I like to have a laugh when things are hard or sad. 

Also, I feel like it’s a way to bring people in. You relate to a character who makes you laugh. Two of my plays begin with a lesbian yelling at the audience. It’s almost like crowd work.

BLADE: Were you ever hesitant about writing queer plays? 

TURNER: I was lucky at Holyoke [Mount Holyoke College where Turner was an undergrad]. Director Brooke O’Hara was teaching there when I attended and she brought in some queer plays; she showed me there was a canon to join and that was exciting.

BLADE: When did you first identify as nonbinary? 

TURNER: In 2022. I’d been butch-presenting for over a decade. Then during the pandemic, I began spending more time alone. When alone, you grant yourself more permission to think. 

For me, I’d always wanted to be independent and not ask for anything, to be butch on my own. As nonbinary, suddenly I had to ask people to use my pronouns. Also, it granted the opportunity to allow people to surprise me in mostly positive ways.

BLADE: Was becoming a produced playwright tough?

TURNER: I wanted to be a playwright at 21 and I had a play produced when I was 27. Now, looking back, I can see it happened pretty quickly, but at the time it felt like forever.  

While doing my MFA in playwriting at Rutgers University, I was working in the box office at the Public Theater in New York where I managed to see things like “Fun Home” and “Hamilton.” 

If I wasn’t working, I was commuting to Rutgers in New Jersey, and I was always writing. I had to be diligent. I’m a perfectionist, but I got things done. I wrote scenes in between waiting for customers at the box office or on the train. It took a lot of energy; drive pushes you. 

BLADE: A while before “At the Wedding,” you wrote “Phases of the Moon” about lesbian poet Elizabeth Bishop. What sparked that interest? 

TURNER: It’s about her time at Vassar College when she fell in love with a woman. It’s set in the 1930s but it’s bit anachronistic. There’s a scene with a Tegan and Sara song. 

Bishop identified as a socialist vegetarian while at one of the most expensive women’s colleges during the height of the Great Depression. I thought to myself, ‘I know that girl, too.’ I love how we can know this person across nearly 100 years.

BLADE: Can you describe your formative years? 

TURNER: I grew up the youngest of four in a small coastal town surrounded by redwoods. It was pretty rural but included an enclave of hippies. Despite being a shy kid, I developed an interest in theater. My parents were relieved. I had tried a lot of things and quickly lost interest: soccer, ballet, Tee-Ball. I remember striking out and all my family laughing. I threw down the bat and that was it. 

BLADE: Do you think about who you’re writing for? 

TURNER: I do. I’m thinking of a queer audience, and writing things that I want to see. In doing that, I’ve been happily surprised that straight people want to come along too.

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