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'Vibrator' hums with farcical humor

Woolly Mammoth’s season opener explores marriage and fulfillment

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Thomas Edison’s discoveries changed the world and the electricity-happy Dr. Givings in Woolly Mammoth’s pleasing season opener — “In the Next Room or the vibrator play” — is eager to let everyone know it. Thanks to his idol’s inventions, Givings’ office lights up with the flick of a switch and his vibrators run automatically.

For a late 1880s doctor like Givings, these quivering and humming devices are decidedly not sex toys, but rather miraculous tools of the trade designed to treat women (and occasionally men) suffering from “hysteria,” a condition whose symptoms included fainting, nervousness, insomnia and loss of appetite for food or sex.

Penned by never-boring playwright Sarah Ruhl, the 2009 comedy presents a moment in the rather astounding history of electric vibratory vulvalar and prostate massage. The practice is no playwright’s creation. In fact, the legendary bisexual anarchist Emma Goldman lent her talents to the cause when she opened a massage parlor in New York City at the turn of the century. Equally interesting, Ruhl’s play intriguingly explores women’s attitudes about autonomy, sex and love.

Like a broken doll, Sabrina Daldry (Kimberly Gilbert) is delivered by her husband, Mr. Daldry (stentorian-voiced James Konicek) to the very efficient Dr. Givings (Eric Hissom) for mending. Sabrina suffers from nervous exhaustion. Her fingers are no longer good for piano playing – or anything else, Mr. Daldry naughtily quips. Offended, the rattled patient threatens to leave at once, but instead submits to the doctor’s treatment as planned. After experiencing her first “paroxysm,” she happily signs on for daily appointments.

At Sabrina’s next session, an electrical unexpectedly outage occurs. Without missing a beat, the good doctor orders his very able assistant Annie (played with comic precision and poignancy by lesbian actor Sarah Marshall) to take over using the manual method. Clearly experienced in the task, Annie expertly delivers toe-curling results surpassing even those of the new-fangled machine. In a later session with the doctor and the vibrator, Sabrina tellingly screams out “Annie!” at the climax of her treatment.

Dr. Givings’ lively young wife Catherine (Katie deBuys) is understandably curious about what goes on in the other room. With her ear pressed against the wall that separates the living room from her husband’s office, she listens to the ongoing buzzing sound overridden by intermittent moans and yelps.

Lonely and restless, Catherine awkwardly befriends her husband’s patients: First it’s Sabrina who rather hilariously introduces her to the vibrating gadget. And later she develops an unrequited crush on one of her husband’s few male patients, handsome artist Leo Irving (a wonderfully over-the-top Cody Nickell). Recently returned from Italy, he is suffering the effects of a broken heart. Not to worry though, by applying electric massage from behind, the doctor prods the willing bohemian back to rosy good health.

Woolly’s first rate cast has great fun with the farcical elements of the show, but it’s not all faked orgasms and sex toys. Both Sabrina and Catherine are seriously unfulfilled. While the former blossoms from frequent treatments, she remains in a loveless marriage, afraid to pursue her same sex-desires. Meanwhile, the latter watches as her own baby and the man she thinks she loves both eschew her for the Madonna-like (Raphael not Ciccone) wet nurse (Jessica Frances Dukes).

Superbly staged by Aaron Posner, the production is exceedingly well-acted and designed: Helen Q. Huang’s stylish ladies’ costumes feature fashionable bustles, constricting corsets and long, straight skirts. Daniel Conway’s terrifically clever set is inspired by a Victorian operating theater.

‘In the Next Room or the vibrator play’
Through Sept. 26
Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company
641 D Street, N.W.
$15-$65
Woolly’s site

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Theater

Capital Fringe connects emerging artists with curious audiences

Annual arts festival runs throughout July

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Dancer Wren Coleman in ‘Alone and Together.’ (Photo by Kylene Cleaver)

Capital Fringe
July 11-21
Capitalfringe.org

Throughout July, Capital Fringe, D.C.’s annual edgy performing arts festival, continues its mission of connecting emerging artists with curious audiences. Among this year’s promising lineup, there are works featuring the personal stories and viewpoints of queer performers and theater makers. 

Fringe is daring and experimental, and with tickets at just $15, it’s a bargain to see these mostly new works performed at easily reachable venues including two established spaces at DCJCC (1529 16th St., N.W.), and three stages, Delirium, Bliss, and Laughter, found in a sprawling former retail space at 1150 Connecticut Ave., N.W.   

Included in the offerings is Sharp Dance Company. Helmed by director Diane Sharp-Nachsin, the accomplished group presents “Alone and Together” (July 18-21) at DCJCC in Dupont.  

Sharp company member Wren Coleman, a transmasculine dancer and educator based in Philadelphia, describes the company as very LGBTQ friendly and notes that “Alone and Together” is comprised of five pieces with some of particular interest to queer people. 

“Awakenings,” choreographed by Kevin Ferguson, speaks about his experience coming out as Black gay man. Coleman says “the piece hits me very hard. It talks about the ways how those who’ve loved you your entire life might perceive you and the different stages you go through from the initial anxieties, to finding and expressing queer love. It’s truly a beautiful piece.” 

Sharp Dance Company is Coleman’s dance family. When he came out as both trans and gay, Colman was scared. He says, “because dance is very gendered, I was worried that I might land on the outskirts of the community that I love so very much, but that wasn’t the case. Diane [Sharp-Nachsin] welcomed me with open arms; she’s helped me with my training, and helped me transition from a female-born dancer to a male dancer who dances male roles. She’s been incredibly supportive.” 

At a little over an hour long, “Alone and Together” truly has something for everyone, says Coleman. The company brings together very dynamic, contemporary modern pieces, some more current than others, but all impactful and thought provoking. 

This year marks both the company and Coleman’s second consecutive year at Fringe. Last year, the company was singled out as “Best Dance.” 

“It was an absolutely lovely experience with great crowds, says Coleman. “Since then, some of those audience members have come to see our work in Philadelphia and North Carolina. We’re really grateful to the Washington community.” 

At the Bliss, Rodin Alcerro is directing his new play “Pondering About My Memories” (July 13-21), the story of a 30-year-old man who is remembering his first teenage same-sex crush. “It’s a dialogue a between the present and the past surrounding forbidden love,” Alcerro explains. 

Born and raised in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, Alcerro has lived in D.C. for five years. So far, his theatrical credits are mostly for acting (GALA, Synetic, 1st Stage), but more recently he’s been transitioning from acting to directing and playwriting: “Not long ago, I reached a point in my life where I felt playing a character wasn’t enough to say all the things I wanted to say; I needed to share my own stories, and tell what I feel is necessary to tell.” 

The play’s protagonist is portrayed by Alcerro’s real life partner Pablo Guillen opposite Joshua Cole Lucas as the crush. Alcerro and both actors have experience with acclaimed local movement-based company Synetic, an asset for Alcerro’s very physical play. 

While the two-hander plumbs present and past, it’s not entirely autobiographical: Alcerro says, “That’s the good thing about fiction; it’s a mix of fact and what’s imagined. My play comes from a personal place. The situation and character relate to me as a person but the fiction makes it more interesting, I think.” 

Other Fringe works with queer content include “How to Reinvent Yourself in 5 (not-so) easy steps,” written and performed by Gennie (G) Minzyk; Caitlin Frazier’s “Re: Writing,” a new play about the ethics of writing in which a young queer couple navigates the beginning of a relationship; and Steamworks Productions’ “Existential People,” a Jean-Paul Sartre inspired tale of three gay men (who also happen to be murderers and criminals) as they are led “over the River Styx” into Hades.

 For further details go to Capitalfringe.org

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An autistic, nonbinary, creative type takes center stage in new play

‘Tornado Tastes Like Aluminum Sting’ featured at W.Va. festival

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Playwright Harmon Dot Aut

Contemporary American Theater Festival
Through July 28
Shepherdstown, W.Va.
Catf.org

For their new uniquely titled play, “Tornado Tastes Like Aluminum Sting,” Harmon Dot Aut draws heavily from life. Like the playwright, the new work’s central character Chantal Buñuel, called CB for short, is an autistic, nonbinary creative with synesthesia, a condition that causes some people to experience more than one sense simultaneously (like tasting words for instance).

But how much of Harmon’s three hander, currently making its world premiere at the annual Contemporary American Theater Festival (CATF) at Shepherd University in historic, queer-friendly Shepherdstown, W.Va. (just a 90-minute drive from D.C.), is specifically autobiographical? 

Parts are imagined but location and circumstances are pretty exact, they explain via phone during a rehearsal break. The story unfolds in rural Kansas surrounded by relative poverty; the family doesn’t have much, but they’re loving. 

“Often when I see people depicted from rural areas who don’t have a lot of money, we’re invited to make fun of them. I wanted to make sure I created people who were smart, who fought hard, who loved hard. Who loved their child and had some grace.”

Throughout the 90-minute Oliver Butler-directed production, teenage CB (played by Jean Christian Barry) speaks to the audience in the intimate Studio 112, one of CATF’s smaller spaces, inviting theatergoers into their world, to experience their brain from the inside.   

“It’s not really structured like other plays,” says Harmon, “Chantal is a character you’ve never seen represented on stage before, a story artfully revealed through projections, lights, and live feed. 

“I wanted to give them a sense of self that’s very strong, non-wavering. An asset in less tolerant, rural Kansas. Chantal, who becomes a filmmaker, sees a lot of life through a camera lens. They’re a character who’s autistic and nonbinary but who also has agency, a spark and need to go forward.  I call it ‘the fuck you’ spark. No matter what happens you move forward.”

The Hudson Valley-based playwright wrote their first iteration of “Tornado Tastes Like Aluminum Sting” in 2008. Harmon says “It took a while for folks to get on board, to use the word neurodivergent. That was its genesis. I kept working on it. And now I’m here having it produced, which is fabulous.”

For the young, undiagnosed Harmon, playwriting came instinctively. As a kid they’d record music off the radio and things they’d made up on their Playskool recorder. Then they’d take the tape out and cut and splice and make their own recordings. 

“I was making plays but didn’t know it, trying to understand a world that was incomprehensible to me.”

Harmon studied acting at a small college in Kansas. After graduating, they bravely jumped on a bus and traveled the country. “That was my true education. I was constantly writing, and I did standup.” 

A recipient of a Visionary Playwright Award, and founding member of the notorious gay sketch comedy troupe, Hot Dish! they’re enjoying their time in charming Shepherdstown, an accepting enclave where Confederate banners give way to a sea of rainbows. 

Other CATF offerings include Mark St. Germain’s “The Happiest Man On Earth,” the true story of Holocaust survivor Eddie Jaku. 

Out playwright Donja R. Love’s “What Will Happen To All That Beauty?” is described as an epic work about Black people living with HIV/AIDS exploring “questions of legacy, family, and healing against the haunting landscape of the AIDS crisis of the 80s and its enduring impact.”

Paloma Nozicka’s “Enough To Let The Light In” is a smart, spooky play about “girlfriends Marc and Cynthia who spend an night celebrating a milestone, but over the course of the evening, their lives are irrevocably changed as buried secrets begin to emerge.”

Nozicka, an ardent queer ally based in L.A, says “For a while I’d wanted to write work reflective of queer friends who don’t get to play queer characters. And when they do, they feel it’s tokenism, and that the characters are less than nuanced,” 

She adds “Friends who’ve acted in the play tell me it’s the first time they’ve ever played a lesbian on stage and they’ve been acting twenty years. 

“I feel there should be more opportunities for people to be playing who are they are.”

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Stephen Mark Lukas makes sublime turn in ‘Funny Girl’

Updated take at Kennedy Center features fabulous score

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Stephen Mark Lukas (Photo courtesy Lukas)

‘Funny Girl’
Through July 14
The Kennedy Center
$49-$189
Kennedy-center.org

With his striking good looks and sublime singing voice, out actor Stephen Mark Lucas is the ideal musical theater leading man, a title he both nails and thoroughly enjoys. 

He’s played Elder Price in “The Book of Mormon” both on Broadway and on tour, and regionally, he’s wowed audiences performing classic parts like Sky Masterson in “Guys and Dolls,” Joe Hardy in “Damn Yankees,” Lancelot in “Camelot,” and Curly in “Oklahoma.”

He’s now playing Nick Arnstein, the love interest of Katerina McCrimmon’s Fanny Brice in the national tour of the Broadway revival of “Funny Girl.” Composed by Jule Styne and Bob Merrill, it’s the musical story of comedian Brice’s rise from anonymity to stardom via vaudeville, Ziegfeld Follies, radio, and some film. While cementing the Brice legend, the show also became inextricably linked to Barbra Streisand through the 1964 Broadway hit and later movie musical that made her a star.

When we meet Arnstein, a suave, mustachioed gambler, he seems on top of the world, but that soon proves otherwise. Lukas says, “He serves as a bit of an antagonist, but his shortcomings are what pave the way for Fanny’s triumphant ending.”

Certainly, the show still features fabulous tuneful hits like “Don’t Rain On My Parade,” “I’m the Greatest Star,” and “People.” But now there’s an updated book from Harvey Fierstein based on the original classic by Isobel Lennart, which strives to make Arnstein a little more likeable, he says. 

Lukas, who understudied Ramin Karimloo as Nick while on Broadway before taking the part on tour, says, “My character exists in relation to Fanny. The musical is her memories. So, the way I do the role has a lot to do with the actor who’s playing Fanny. So far there have been six including the well-received Lea Michele.” 

The quality of Fanny’s ambition is stronger in the first act while the second act spotlights the demise of her romantic life with Nick, something audiences don’t always anticipate, says Lukas. 

He says McCrimmon captures the blind ambition of the younger Fanny, adding, “her voice is out of this world. People aren’t prepared for what she brings to the part vocally. She’s young yet possesses an old Hollywood quality, and she gets the humor of the role. My favorite song is a duet added to the second act. It’s really beautiful.”

Lukas says he’s never had a problem playing straight romantic characters, explaining that his acting takes care of that. 

He has noticed that over the years the business has changed from more of a “don’t ask don’t tell” policy to something freer: “When I started in the profession, it was a different time. The public perception of queerness for actors has changed.”  

For instance, Lukas is very open about his longtime relationship with former Broadway dancer Brian Letendre – the pair are slated to tie the knot after the “Funny Girl” tour ends. 

Most of his roles have dealt with masculinity in some way, says Lukas. “A lot of characters I play start with confidence and unravel as the show goes on. What does it mean to be a man? What is masculinity? What does it mean to be a husband and a father?”

Growing up in Kennebunkport, Maine, he enjoyed annual visits to New York to see Broadway shows. He boarded at the prestigious Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, and studied theater at NYU. He’s remained based in New York City thereafter. 

His life on the road is enjoyable yet disciplined. Lukas says, “the spaces where we perform are interesting for this show in particular. ‘Funny Girl’ is in many ways a show about theater, and we play some of the old vaudeville theaters and movie palaces where Fanny Brice in fact performed.” 

While moving from town to town, Lukas takes care of his voice. He makes sure to eat and sleep well, and works out regularly as evidenced by his impressive build. He also prioritizes visits with his partner whenever possible. 

“These older book musicals are character driven and have great scores,” says Lukas. “It’s what makes them relevant today. On the surface they might feel dated, but there’s also the contemporary humor and romance.”

What’s more, the work is never stagnant, he adds.

“Increasingly, I approach the work as an actor first and that’s what informs the singing; it’s that intersection that goes from scene into song, and that makes a difference.” 

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