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Gender bending the boards

‘Hair,’ saints in drag, ‘Falsettsos’ and more among season’s wacky offerings

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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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Theater

Tony Thomas brings ‘Tempestuous Elements’ to DC

Ann Julia Cooper play will be at Arena Stage through March 17

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Tony Thomas (Photo courtesy of Tony Thomas)

‘Tempestuous Elements’
Through March 17
Arena Stage 
1101 Sixth St., S.W.
$56-$95
Arenastage.org

Tony Thomas isn’t shy about his talent. The accomplished choreographer says, “With every show I work on, the artists continue to grow. They leave wanting to keep moving and to expand that part of their artistry.”

Over the years, he’s successfully carved out a niche as a choreographer of plays with music and/or movement. For many of these “playsicals” as he whimsically dubs them, his creative credit reads “choreography consultant.”

Once an actor who danced a lot, he’s now passionate about helping other actors do the same. Currently, he’s serving as choreographer and associate director for the world premiere production of “Tempestuous Elements,” at Arena Stage’s in the round Fichandler space. Penned by Kia Corthron and staged by Psalmayene 24, it’s the true-life story of Ann Julia Cooper (played by Gina Daniels), a Black principal at D.C.’s historic M Street School who, against all odds, fights for her students’ rights to an advanced curriculum. 

WASHINGTON BLADE: Is this a D.C. story?

TONY THOMAS: In part. It’s more a story of its time. Anna understood she was poised to be somebody, but still feel the pushback. Superintendent white doesn’t approve of the classic curriculum she’s created for Black students. Hers is a turn of 20th century Black middle-class life with high tea and much finery. More importantly, Black people are being seen as human beings. It’s an opportunity to really be someone, but the fight isn’t over. People are boxed in another systemic way.

BLADE: And how does choreography work within a play?

THOMAS: With plays, I need to demonstrate the choreography. The actors want to see it. It’s not like with dancers when we speak the same vocabulary. 

I realize energy is one of my selling points. I’ll be 45 in April and apparently my turns and jumps are still on point.

BLADE Is there a difference between beautiful movement and not just actor movement?

THOMAS: There’s a difference. With “Tempestuous Elements,” I taught them a little ballet, warmed them up and imbued them with the dignity needed for the story they’re about to tell. Some of the cast already move like dancers while others understand tempo. When choreographing plays with movement, you have to trust the actors. 

BLADE: Is that tough for a trained dancer?

THOMAS: No, not really. I have a concert dance background — ballet, modern, jazz — and have studied with Debbie Allen, Shawn Cosby and Mike Malone. I don’t expect that level of training from actors. I like the freedom to move and put their characters into it. They’re not like ten concert dancers who need to look like one person. They are moving as characters — students, different adults.

BLADE: For a decade, you stepped away from showbiz? 

THOMAS: I stopped in my mid-20s. I turned Ailey down twice. Then I went to art school and pursued a degree in interior architecture at Academy of Art University in San Francisco. 

BLADE: And you returned theater? 

THOMAS: Now I do both theater and interior architecture, but in 2012 friends dared me to come along on an audition for the Broadway “West Side Story.” Well, I did and I booked a national tour. That got me back in the business. Not long after, I played Richie in “A Chorus Line” at Olney Theatre. And around 2015, I did “The Shipment” with Psalm, and ever since I’ve done all of the choreography and movement for his plays.

            BLADE: Tell me how you connect with “Tempestuous Elements”?

THOMAS: Who was your first teacher? We asked the actors to come to this production with that in mind, and to let that warm their hearts as we developed this original piece.

I grew up as a child actor doing TV, film and theater shuttling back and forth from D.C. to New York, and I took that from my mom who was an actor, singer, and dancer. I watched her teach, dress as a clown and put on parties for kids, and there were all sorts of performance-related things that I learned from her.

BLADE: And does that continue? 

THOMAS: Oh yeah. Increasingly, I enjoy being the process. I’ve grown past the point of just coming in and doing my job. I feel more invested. More and more, I want to be part of the creation process.

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Theater

Deaf, gay actor on gripping, funny ‘Private Jones’

Musical makes premiere at Signature with Obie winner Dickie Drew Hearts

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Dickie Drew Hearts (Photo by Matthew Murphy)

‘Private Jones’
Through March 10
Signature Theatre 
4200 Campbell Ave.
Arlington, Virginia 22206
$40-$99 
Sigtheatre.org

Set against the harsh vicissitudes of the Great War, “Private Jones” a new musical written and directed by Marshall Pailet, is currently making its world premiere at Signature Theatre in Arlington. 

Touted as gripping, unexpectedly funny, and purportedly true, it’s the story of Gomer Jones, a young Deaf Welshman who after wriggling his way into military service becomes a celebrated sniper only to learn there might be more to life. 

The production features a cast of hearing, Deaf, and hard-of-hearing actors including Dickie Drew Hearts, the Deaf, gay, and affable actor who recently won an Obie Award for “Dark Disabled Stories” at the Public in New York, and is probably best known for his performance of Mateo in Netflix’s “Tales of the City” (2019 miniseries).

Gathered around the end of a long conference table in the Sondheim Multipurpose Room at Signature Theatre, Hearts and I along with two top notch interpreters (one to sign my questions and another to voice the actor’s replies) dive into conversation. 

Hearts plays Henry, a Deaf munitions factory worker whose sister Gwenolyn (Leanne Antonio) becomes the love interest of Gomer (played by hard-of-hearing actor Johnny Link). It’s Henry who teaches Gomer sign language and essentially introduces him to Deaf culture, which isn’t unusual, says Hearts. It’s often through other Deaf people that the Deaf themselves get introduced to the Deaf community and signing world.

When the actors met in 2018, says Hearts, “Johnny [Link] was just learning sign language. I assured him that those who are hard-of-hearing are automatically very welcome members of the deaf community. Point blank. There are no qualifications.”

And now, six years later, Hearts is thrilled to be working with Link. “It’s amazing to see Johnny again, and to be having full conversations with him in sign language both on and off stage.” 

Not only is “Private Jones” a physically demanding show, but because it’s performed in spoken English as well as some American Sign Language (ASL) and British Sign Language (BSL) it presents some extra difficulties.

To play Henry, Hearts – a native ASL user since childhood – has had to learn BSL, tantamount to doing the show in an entirely new and different language. Hearts says, “I hope people recognize that. And signing along musically in BSL adds a layer of challenge beyond signing BSL dialogue.” 

Of course, he remains undaunted. It’s about the job and getting the character right. And for the thirtysomething actor that means going deep.  

“I would like to think Henry is a closeted gay man. Henry has ‘a roommate,’ is how I thought of his backstory.”

Hearts adds, “I know that queer people have always been here and I like to infuse that into the characters I play whether or not it’s stated. I look for those moments of where it might be hinting at sexuality, and ask what was it like at the time, was it safe to be out?”

Born Deaf in Queens, New York, into a hearing family who’d recently immigrated from formerly British Guyana in South America, Hearts grew up in Newport News, Va. 

A childhood spent watching captioned TV shows taught him both English and how to impersonate characters, an obsession that he took out into the neighborhood. “Eventually, somebody said there’s a thing for what I do. It’s called theater,” he signs with a grin. 

While attending Gallaudet University here in D.C., Hearts focused on film until his senior year when he randomly auditioned for the musical comedy “Urinetown” and landed the lead role of dashing Bobby Strong. A love for acting resurfaced and took hold. 

After graduating, Hearts came out and promptly moved to L.A. where he spent the next six years skirmishing over a dearth of Deaf parts. When a gig led him to New York in 2018, his luck changed. 

“Being a Deaf, gay, BIPOC actor was amazing for finding stage and film work in New York. But just when a lot of doors were opening for me, the pandemic hit and everything stopped.” 

Slowly things picked up. And in 2021 he became part of a new project. He was soon reporting to a nondescript high rise in midtown Manhattan workshopping what would become “Private Jones.” 

Now at Signature, Hearts is busy bringing Henry to life. “It’s been an amazing journey and I’m really fortunate to have witnessed its evolution from the beginning. It’s become grander, more elevated, and the characters more complex. It’s a wonderful thing” 

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Theater

‘Next to Normal’ a heartrending rock musical about mental illness

Impact on patient, family, and beyond expressed through song

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Lucas Hinds Babcock (Gabe) and Tracy Lynn Olivera (Diana) in ‘Next to Normal’ at Round House Theatre. (Photo by Margot Schulman Photography)

‘Next to Normal’
Through March 3
Round House Theatre 
4545 East-West Highway
Bethesda, MD  20814
$46-$88 
Roundhousetheatre.org

They’ve made a deal. Dan goes to work and does the shopping, while Diana stays home and keeps house. It’s safer that way. But when Diana starts making sandwiches on the floor, something’s not right. So, it’s back to the doctor. 

And that’s the kickoff to “Next to Normal,” Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt’s masterful alt-rock musical, now enjoying a revival at Round House Theatre in Bethesda. Strikingly helmed by out director Alan Paul, the production features an exciting mix of both new and familiar faces. 

It’s the suburban mother’s sixteenth year into a bipolar disorder diagnosis and Diana Goodman, played brilliantly by Tracy Lynn Olivera, is understandably a bit battle weary. Yet despite years of periodic episodes, med adjustments, and interminable flat days filled with robotically performed household chores including sex with her husband, she still maintains a wry sense of humor peppered with sarcastic asides, all skillfully landed by Olivera. 

And while Diana is the eye of the domestic storm, the rest of the family play their parts too. There’s Dan (Kevin S. McAllister), the exhausted architect, doing his best to keep home life as normal as possible, supporting a wife while missing the young vibrant woman she once was; teenage daughter Natalie (Sophia Early) a peevish grade-grubber who’s prime for emotional escape; and an elusive son, Gabe (Lucas Hinds Babcock), being his mother’s ally. 

Also on hand is Henry (Ben Clark), the kind, stoner new boyfriend who Natalie reluctantly introduces to her parents.  

With “Who’s Crazy?”/ “My Psychopharmacologist and I,” we musically follow Diana through her current med adjustment. After almost two months of uncomfortable tweaking, Diana says she feels nothing and treatment is deemed a success. 

Feeling nothing is painful. Through her plaintive solo “I Miss the Mountains,” she explains the exhilarating highs she longs to relive. Unsurprisingly, the patient soon goes off her meds and what follows is a manic episode of nonstop cleaning, cooking, rearranging, and lots of decoupage.

Next up is more treatment including ECT therapy. Versatile local actor Calvin McCullough plays both Fine and Madden, Diana’s sincere but not wholly successful doctors. 

“Next to Normal” premiered to acclaim in 2008, scooping up awards with names like Tony and Pulitzer. A rock musical with a hard charging score and a libretto about mental illness that’s at once heartrending and funny felt new and was hugely well received. 

Similarly, the mostly sung through musical is a hit at Round House (with an extended run through March 3) thanks largely to the revival’s inventive staging, fresh musical direction by Chris Youstra, and an uber talented cast of six.  

Here, the powerful effects of mental illness on the patient, family, and beyond are expressed not through dialogue but songs feelingly sung – sometimes softly, sometimes loudly. 

Each of the cast have their moments, including Lucas Hinds Babcock as Gabe who zooms lithely around the set singing “I’m Alive.” It’s – to me – a fantastic introduction to Babcock’s talent.

Smartly, Eamon Foley provides some fun but mostly fittingly understated choreography, and Helen Q. Huang’s thoughtful costuming adds to the atmosphere, accentuating burgeoning Natalie’s changing means of sartorial expression and Diana’s patient versus civilian attire. 

Director Paul, along with celebrated designers Wilson Chin (scenic) and Nicholas Hussong (projections), have created an immense industrial expanse that serves as home, hospital, and recital hall, and cleverly supplies a surface for outsized projections of the actors’ faces and, most unforgettably, a tight shot of Olivera’s blinking blue eyes. 

These projections – both recorded and in real-time – get up close and personal with the cast’s performances, creating an intimacy and intensity that works especially well, making a satisfying experience even better.  

“Next to Normal” is a co-production with Massachusetts’s Barrington Stage Company where Alan Paul is artistic director. Before landing in the Berkshires in 2023, he was associate artistic director at Shakespeare Theatre Company.

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