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Dissecting differences

Gay playwright explores national discourse in current two-character ‘Cronkite’

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‘Walter Cronkite Is Dead’

Through Dec. 19

Signature Theatre

4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, VA.

$50-$76

703-820-9771

Nancy Robinette, left, and Sherri L. Edelen in Signature's 'Walter Cronkite is Dead.' Gay playwright Joe Calarco says his late mother inspired some of the characterizations. (Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Signature)

There’s very little left of civil discourse in today’s America and things don’t look likely to improve any time soon. So rightly observes gay writer/director Joe Calarco who is more than a bit dismayed by the nation’s rancorous stalemate.

His new comedy “Walter Cronkite is Dead” forces two very different women to get beyond first impressions, opening an entirely relatable exploration of communication and perception.

In Calarco’s entertaining two-hander, we meet Margaret (Nancy Robinette) and Patty (Sherri L. Edelen), two travelers stuck in Reagan National waiting on weather-delayed flights. Ostensibly these strangers couldn’t be more different: Margaret is the reserved, seemingly well-educated matron, and Patty is a loud, folksy, fanny pack-sporting chatterbox. Politically, religiously and temperamentally, the middle-aged widows are polar opposites, but after sharing a tiny table in a crowded airport café it becomes clear they have more than a little in common. While each are familiar with disappointment and loss, they remain survivors with a sense of humor.

“I didn’t set out to write a polemic, but rather something that the audience could enjoy,” Calarco says. “It was very important for me to create characters who listen to one another and they needed to be real people so the audience would listen too. Once you’ve heard someone’s story, it’s harder to demonize them. Too often these days, people are shouting opposite points and not listening.”

Initially Margaret and Patty were characters featured in Calarco’s larger Bush-era play titled “Holding Pattern.” When he decided to give up on the paranoia-themed work, his sister Renee Calarco (also a playwright) advised him not to abandon it entirely. Calarco agreed and wrote a two-woman comedy, developing the fictional pair with celebrated actors Robinette and Edelen in mind. Not them as people, he says, but as actors — the way they sound and move.

Earlier this year, the playwright’s mother died, but happily before falling ill she was able to attend a reading of the play near her home in upstate New York. In many ways, the work is a love letter to her, he says.

“Not so much in what the play is about,” Calarco says. “But there’s a lot of my mother in the characters. Like Patty, she liked to talk and loved a good ghost story.  My mother was an old school Kennedy Democrat like Margaret and very afraid of flying. There were times over the years when I would have liked to have gotten her on a plane so she could have come and seen the things that I was doing. So for me to get Margaret on a plane was actually an homage to my mother.”

Growing up in Rochester New York, Calarco was involved in summer stock. After graduating form Ithaca College in 1992, he moved to New York City where he realized success pretty rapidly by adapting and directing his off-Broadway hit “Shakespeare’s R & J” (an all-male contemporary take on “Romeo and Juliet”). Most recently, he directed two New York productions, “In Transit” and “Burnt Part Boys.” In October he won the Barrymore Award for his direction of last season’s “The Light in the Piazza” at Philadelphia Theatre Company.

His long and very successful relationship with Signature Theatre began more than 10 years ago and includes directing Helen Hayes Award-winning productions like “Assassins,” “Urinetown,” “Sideshow” and “Nijinsky’s Last Dance.” He also writes for Signature’s teen education program Signature in the School. This year’s world premiere play is about propaganda and the Internet.

While Calarco remains less than optimistic about the future of discourse, his theater prospects look rosy. He’s finishing up two plays. One he describes as sort of “Big Chill”-ish, not in structure, but in feel; the other is about related women and the secrets their family keeps. He says it has a gothic feel.

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Music & Concerts

Forget streaming, the holiday classics return to area stages

Bring your proof of vaccination and check out a local production this season

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A scene from a previous Gay Men's Chorus of Washington Holiday Show. (Blade photo by Michael Key)

A year ago, the holiday season was streamed. But now, thanks to various protocols including masks and proof of vaccination, DMV theatergoers can come together and experience – live and in-person — both beloved classics and some promising new works. Here’s a smattering of what’s out there.

At Olney Theatre, Paul Morello is thrilled to bring back “A Christmas Carol 2021” (through Dec. 26), his solo adaptation of Dickens’ ghost story. Concerning returning to a live audience, Morello says, “While this is technically a one-person show, it’s really about the connection and collaboration with an audience, being in the same room, breathing in unison. I can’t do this without an audience and for a story that thrives on redemption, mortality, isolation, the need for community and connection, and the things that matter most, the timing couldn’t be better.”

Olney also presents “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast” through Jan. 2. This musical “tale as old as time” stars out actor Jade Jones as Belle and Evan Ruggiero plays the Beast. olneytheatre.org

For the holidays, Synetic Theater at Crystal City is reworking “Cinderella” (Nov. 27-Dec. 26). Led by an all-female team of creators, this festive take on the classic fairytale is inspired by Afro-Latino music and dance. Directed and adapted by Maria Simpkins who also plays the title role. synetictheater.org

Last year, because of COVID-19, Ford’s Theatre presented “A Christmas Carol” as a radio broadcast, but now the fully produced play returns to the venue’s historic stage through Dec. 27. A popular Washington tradition for more than 30 years, the thoroughly enjoyable and topnotch take on the Dickens’ classic features Craig Wallace reprising the part of Scrooge, the miser who after a night of ghostly visits, rediscovers Christmas joy. fords.org

Another D.C. tradition guaranteed to put audiences in a holiday mood is the Washington Ballet’s “Nutcracker,” playing at the Warner Theatre through Dec. 26. Set to Tchaikovsky’s enchanted score, this charming and superbly executed offering takes place in Georgetown circa 1882 and features a retinue of historic figures along with children, rats, fairies and a mysterious godfather. Choreography is by Septime Webre. washingtonballet.org

The Folger Consort, the superb early music ensemble in residence at the Folger, will be performing seven concerts of “A Medieval Christmas” (Dec. 10-18) at St. Mark’s Church on Capitol Hill. A streaming version of the concert will also be available to view on-demand. folger.edu

At Lincoln Theatre, the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, D.C. presents “The Holiday Show” (Dec. 4, 11, and 12) replete with tap-dancing elves, a dancing Christmas tree, snow, and a lot more. The fun and festive program’s song list includes “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!”, “The 12 Rockin’ Days of Christmas,” and “Boogie Woogie Frosty.” Featured performances range from the full Chorus, soloists, all GMCW ensembles, and the GenOUT Youth Chorus. gmcw.org

Arena Stage is marking the season with August Wilson’s “Seven Guitars” (through Dec. 26), a drama about a small group of friends who gather following the untimely death of their friend, a blues guitarist on the edge of stardom. Directed by Tazewell Thompson, the production features an exciting cast that includes local actors Dane Figueroa Edidi and Roz White. arenastage.org

Creative Cauldron is serving up some holiday magic with “The Christmas Angel” (Dec. 9-19). Based on a little-known 1910 novel by Abbey Farwell Brown, it’s the story of a lonely and bitter spinster who returns to happiness through a box of old toys. The commissioned new holiday musical is a collaboration of longtime musical collaborators and married couple Matt Conner and Stephen Gregory Smith (lyrics and book). creativecauldron.org

In keeping with the Yuletide spirit, the National Theatre presents two feel-good national tour musicals. First, it’s “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” (through Dec. 5), a musical take on Dr. Seuss’ classic holiday tale featuring the hit songs “You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch” and “Welcome Christmas.”

Next up is “Tootsie” (Dec. 7-12), the hit musical based on the 1982 gender-bending film starring Dustin Hoffman as an out-of-work actor who disguises himself as a woman to land a role on a popular soap opera. The show boasts a Tony-winning book by Robert Horn and a score by Tony winner David Yazbek (The Band’s Visit). thenationaldc.com

Keegan Theatre presents its annual holiday offering, “An Irish Carol” (Dec. 10-31). Set in a modern Dublin pub, the funny yet poignant original work (a nod to Dickens) tracks the changes in the life of a rich but miserable publican over the course of one Christmas Eve. keegantheatre.org

At Theater J, it’s the Kinsey Sicks’ “Oy Vey in a Manger” (Dec. 17-25). Blending drag, four-part harmony, and political humor, the “dragapella beautyshop quartet” brings its own hilariously irreverent view on the holidays. theaterj.org

And through Jan. 2, Signature Theatre continues to brighten the season with its production of Jonathan Larson’s “Rent” directed by the company’s out artistic director Matthew Gardiner and featuring out actor David Merino as Angel, a preternaturally energetic drag queen and percussionist. sigtheare.org

The Music Center at Strathmore, also in Bethesda, is presenting a wide range of musical holiday offerings including “Manheim Steamroller Christmas” (Dec. 3 and 4), a multimedia holiday tradition; Sarah Brightman in “A Christmas Symphony” (Dec. 6 and 7); “A Celtic Christmas with Séan Heely Celtic Band” (Dec. 11); Washington Bach Consort’s “Bach’s Epic Christmas Oratorio” (Dec. 11); the beloved “The Washington Chorus: A Candlelight Christmas” (Dec. 16 and 17); and last but not least “The Hip Hop Nutcracker” (Dec. 20), Tchaikovsky’s classic reimagined with MC Kurtis Blow (“White Lines”). strathmore.org

And finally, something strictly for the kids: Imagination Stage presents “Corduroy” (Dec. 11-Jan. 24). Based on the beloved children’s books by Don Freeman, it’s the heartwarming story of a girl and her perfectly imperfect Teddy Bear. Best for ages 3-9. imaginationstage.org

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Theater

‘The Great Leap’ explores change in 1989 China

‘As an Asian American, you rarely play the lead in a play’

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Grant Chang (Photo courtesy of Round House Theatre)

‘The Great Leap’
Through Dec. 5
In-person with Streaming on demand beginning Nov. 26
Round House Theatre
4545 East-West Highway
Bethesda, Md., 20814
$34-$71
roundhousetheatre.org

Sometimes, working on a single play can change an actor’s feelings about his craft and career. For Grant Chang, it was Lauren Yee’s “The Great Leap,” an international sports story set in 1989 at the time of the Tiananmen Square uprising.

Chang, who is gay, garnered terrific reviews for playing Wen Chang, a reserved Beijing university basketball coach of the 1970s and ’80s, in the Los Angeles production of Yee’s comic drama, and is now reprising the role in an original production at Round House Theatre.

He says, “As an Asian American, you rarely play the lead in a play, so having that opportunity and to be in something good and meaningful is so rewarding. It makes you work harder to be the best you can be on stage.”

Like the actor’s parents, his character Wen Chang grew up in China and lived through the Cultural Revolution. “In order to survive, he has to essentially take orders from the government, no questions,” explains Chang. “That’s where we meet him when the play begins. In the second act, 18 years have passed and he has experienced a transformation. Without spoiling things, let’s just say as heartbreaking as the change is, it’s also inspiring.”

Chang’s casting story is cute. While playing Whiterose’s handsome assistant on television’s “Mr. Robot,” he became close friends with castmate B.D. Wong, who first shot to fame playing the title role in David Henry Hwang’s “M. Butterfly.” When Wong was tapped to direct the East West Players and Pasadena Playhouse co-production of Yee’s play in 2019, he asked Chang to audition for Wen Chang, a part Wong had previously played in New York.

“B.D. thought I’d be right for the role, but I wasn’t so sure. To step into his shoes was really a lot,” says Chang, 42. “They were looking for local L.A. hires, and I’m a New York- based actor. He asked if they couldn’t find someone would I send in a self-tape. I hesitantly agreed.”

“That same night B.D. texted me and said ‘put yourself on tape by tomorrow.’ I thought dammit, I have to do this, so I did,” he recalls.

After viewing Chang’s audition tape, the production team made a unanimous decision to cast him: “B.D. believed in me more than I believed in myself. It’s changed my way of acting, and I’m still very grateful for that.”

And that was the beginning of “a great and beautiful journey” that continued at Round House under the sensitive direction of Jennifer Chang who was open to letting the actors explore, he says.

Chang adds, “I’m Chinese American, my parents are from China, and I majored in East Asian Studies. There’s something instilled in me that I bring to this character. I humanize him in many ways that others might not and I think the audience picks up on that.”

Despite an abundance of basketball focused marketing, the play is less about the sport and more about the game of life, says Chang. Incidentally, as a kid in New York City, he struggled with learning to dribble and even longer with how to dribble and run. But he wasn’t unfamiliar with the rules and jargon. His dad and brothers watched a lot of basketball, and periodically he’d join them.

In addition to acting, Chang teaches dance and also directs. For his short film, “Finding You” (2015), he was awarded Best Actor and Best Director at the 38th Annual Asian American International Film Festival and the 11th Annual 72 Hour Shootout 2015, presented by the Asian American Film Lab.

He intends to do more directing when he can: “I have the patience to bring out things in other actors and inspire them to do really good work. Not everyone can do that.”

Following his stint at Round House, besides teaching dance, there’s nothing on the horizon, says Chang: “I’m constantly auditioning. Like everybody, we’re all trying to get back to some normalcy by working, but we’re also trying to live day to day, be happy, and accept what life brings us.”

(Photo by Kent Kondo; courtesy Round House Theatre)
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Theater

Exploring a complicated father-daughter relationship

Mosaic’s ‘Birds of North America’ unfolds over 10 years

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David Bryan Jackson and Regina Aquino in 'Birds of North America.’ (Photo by Chris Banks)

‘Birds of North America’
Through Nov. 21
Mosaic Theater Company
Atlas Performing Arts Center
$20-$68
Mosaictheater.org

In the leafy backyard of a suburban Maryland home, a father and daughter watch birds and talk about life. Sounds amiable, but in Anna Ouyang Moench’s “Birds of North America” it isn’t, well not entirely. 

The affective and humorous two-hander, now at Mosaic Theater Company, covers nearly 10 tense years of annual October visits home during which John and adult daughter Caitlyn, both avid birders, indulge in their gentle hobby when they’re not fighting. 

“A tufted titmouse,” says John (David Bryan Jackson) motioning toward a heard but unseen songbird. Caitlyn (Regina Aquino) who’s down from New York to see her parents, quickly picks up the binoculars and the feathery friend takes center stage. It’s the same when they spy a nuthatch, cardinal, or morning dove, but after the birds fly off with an audible swoosh, the conversation inevitably turns from the latest hawk or barn owl sighting back to Caitlyn’s lack of ambition or John’s intractability and seeming inability to empathize.

He hates her job choices (working at a conservative news website and later doing marketing for the oil industry), and wishes she’d complete her novel or help to save the planet. She mocks him for putting solar panels on a large house, much too big for two people. 

Time passes. Father and daughter continue to masterfully press each other’s buttons. Initially, he seems cringingly unaware of the impact of his wounding words, particularly when it comes to Caitlyn’s pain surrounding infertility issues. But sometimes he goes for the jugular. She fights back similarly. Despite the ongoing brutal contretemps, there’s still love, and some laughs, between them. 

Without a lot of reference to specific time and place, the playwright cleverly moves the years forward, revealing the details of new relationships, job changes, illness using sometimes quotidian dialogue that rings particularly true. Yet, the work is simultaneously lyrical. 

Mosaic’s out managing director and producer, Serge Seiden, smartly directs the piece with a light, elegant touch, resulting in a thought-provoking and pleasurable 90 minutes. He ably helms a topnotch design team: Alexa Ross creates a simple backyard (worn picket fence, picnic table, and unassuming lawn chairs) backed by a feathery wing of blazing autumnal colors. Brittany Shemuga bathes the intimate stage with the dappled sunlight of a fall day, and David Lamont Wilson’s appealing sound design includes coos, caws, chirps, and pecking sounds. In between scenes, an increasing number of crunchy leaves are scattered over the stage/yard. 

Aquino and Jackson share a combative chemistry, and throughout the years covered, both effectively age, mostly through voice and demeanor. Though stubborn until the end, John seems increasingly resigned and vulnerable; Caitlyn becomes less youthfully exuberant, and more practical and self-contained.  

While Caitlin’s eco-friendly father can be preachy, the play isn’t. The urgency of climate change is couched in unstilted conversations that all of us have overheard or been a part of more than once.  

And by spacing the piece over a decade, Moench demonstrates the vicissitudes of life and relationships, and what a warming climate entails (i.e., decreased bird migration, a longer tick season that results in more dreaded Lyme disease, etc.) Unfortunately, John continues to criticize Caitlyn’s professional choices. She fires back that unlike her father, she needs to earn a paycheck. It seems the mother, a practicing doctor and family bread winner, has long made it possible for John to pursue an unpaid career in vaccination research, an endeavor that he is certain, unfoundedly so, will one day result in a big money payoff. 

As the audience becomes invested in the actors’ finely assayed characters, there also comes a sense of frustration, regret about what might have been. And some hope.  

“Birds of North America” marks Mosaic’s first in-person production after 18-months of closure. COVID-19 infection prevention measures include proof of vaccination, masks, and socially distanced seating. A streaming version will also be available.

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