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Undercover agent

Creative restlessness, logistics spur Ganymede’s Jeffrey Johnson to new endeavors

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EDITOR’S NOTE: This event is over but go here for a review.

‘The Only Gal in Town’

Special Agent Galactica and Christopher Wingert

Dec. 31

8 p.m.

$10

Go Mama Go!

1809 14th Street, N.W.

Special Agent Galactica (Jeffrey Johnson) and her accompanist Christopher Wingert. (Photos courtesy of Jeffrey Johnson)

New Year’s Eve is the birthday of Special Agent Galactica, the performance art drag persona of local gay actor Jeffrey Johnson. So despite logistical hurdles, she’s not letting the occasion pass un-noted.

“The Only Gal in Town,” Galactica’s cabaret act with musical wiz Christopher Wingert, is Dec. 31 at 8 p.m. at Go Mama Go!, the 14th Street shop where Ganymede Arts, the region’s only LGBT arts organization, hosted recent productions of “Falsettos” and “Edie Beale LIVE at Reno Sweeney.”

Galactica, who was born four years ago as one of four drag characters who did a New Year’s Eve show called “SEXE: the Floor Show,” has continued each year. But this year’s show is different in two major regards — Johnson, in a Galactica first, is doing all the vocals live and it’s not a Ganymede production.

Johnson, who had 11 years of musical theater experience under his belt before moving to D.C. in 1997, found his pipes reawakened when he played the lead in “Falsettos” in September. He’d been mostly directing and lip syncing the last decade-plus.

“I can always do more (lip syncing) and I’m not done with that at all, but I do kind of feel I just wanted to try something different and I’ve been inspired by some of the cabaret artists I’ve gotten to know so I thought, ‘This could be a lot of fun,'” Johnson says.

The original plan for “Falsettos” was for Johnson to only direct but an 11th-hour pass from a friend Johnson had tried to arm twist to play the lead resulted in Johnson playing main character Marvin. That production proved doubly influential for the New Year’s Eve show — it not only reawakened Johnson’s love of singing, he found a kindred artistic spirit with “Falsettos” musical director/pianist Christopher Wingert, who’s sharing billing with Galactica for next week’s show.

Wingert was an emergency sub for a performance of “Naked Boys Singing,” Ganymede’s May/June show. He did so well, Johnson hired him for a major role in “Falsettos.”

Wingert, who saw Galactica perform for the first time at this summer’s Fringe Festival, says he and Johnson click.

“We have a ton of fun,” he says. “Sticking to the work is sometimes the tricky part because we end up cracking each other up and going off on all kinds of tangents.”

Next week’s show will find Galactica singing songs by Stephen Sondheim, Quincy Jones, Ray Stevens, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Ann-Margaret, Dusty Springfield and others.

So what will Galactica — whom Johnson admits was conceived as a purposefully ambiguous personality capable of morphing into any guise the lip syncing material demanded — have to say now that she has the chance to speak? Some might shrug since “Falsettos” already proved Johnson can carry a tune, but for those who’ve seen Galactica’s many performances over the years — at Miss Pixie’s, at the Fringe or at ACKC — this is a huge paradigm shift.

Johnson says don’t expect any major soul baring a la Edie Beale’s New Year’s Eve cabaret act which Johnson has performed several times over the last couple years.

“Well, I hate cabaret shows where the people start talking,” he says. “Then it’s just me me me me me me me. I don’t really care. I just want to hear them sing. I didn’t come to hear them relay a life story. That seems a little bit of performance masturbation. So Galactica’s not a big talker. She lets the material speak for itself. I’m still trying to figure out what I need to say or what she would say between songs if she were lip syncing.”

Johnson has never gotten too wrapped up in notions of female illusion. It’s more about toying with notions of gender than trying to make people forget Galactica is played by a man. Subsequently he’ll be using his own vocal register in the show, not aping a higher female range.

“We’re not trying to give them an evening of Castrati,” he says. “It’s all part of the gender-fuck thing. But it’s a gentle gender fucking as it is a holiday.”

Wingert calls Galactica “a class act.”

“She’s a professional,” he says. “That’s the thing that really kind of seals the deal. Yeah, there are lots of performers and some are in wigs and some are not. But the ones that really have the polish and the stage presence to really nail it and just hit every mark every time, that’s very rare and Galactica really has that.”

The Ganymede board is behind Johnson’s venture. It just didn’t have enough money to stage the show itself. An artistically satisfying but financially draining year left the company depleted. “Naked Boys Singing” broke even. “Falsettos” probably would have, Johnson says, except that the company had to put about $10,000 into building a stage and seats in Go Mama Go’s back room after Miss Pixie’s landlord put the kibosh on anymore shows there. Both shows had high royalty fees as well.

“We had a terrific year,” says Ganymede board vice president Jim Bennett. “We put on some spectacular productions on a shoe-string budget and we had a lot of help but the money, in this economy, is just not readily available and we’re kind of always scrambling to make ends meet.”

The New Year’s Eve show will be divided into two acts. The first is voice and piano. A drummer and bass player will join Johnson and Wingert in the second half. It’ll also be over about 9:15 so attendees will have plenty of time to get to the spot in which they want to ring in the new year. Drinks, snacks and champagne will be served. JR.’s and Johnson’s friend, Patrick Vanas, are making donations for that.

So what inspires Johnson to continue forging ahead despite modest payoffs? He admits it’s been “really hard” to reconcile Ganymede’s near-pristine critical record the lack of grant funding and widespread regional support.

“Just being able to do these things is the biggest payoff,” he says. “Having the outlet. When I don’t have the outlet I get extremely depressed, moody. So it’s just that I’m grateful to have it … as a person, I’m artistically fulfilled. As an artistic director of a company, I think there’s a lot left to be desired … there’s no bragging rights to say you’re a patron of Ganymede like there is at Studio, or Arena, or to say, ‘Oh, I’m a patron of the Kennedy Center.’… Sometimes I don’t feel the community support is there.”

Bennett says anyone who hasn’t seen Johnson perform as Galactica should.

“He’s very talented and puts 110 percent into everything he does and he does it to perfection,” he says. “The kid has a lot of talent and a lot of dedication. I would love to see him be a really big star someday because he’s so committed to his art. If you have not yet seen him in this type of performance, you have to go. He is just terrific.”

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Actor finds fulfillment raising money for queer non-profits

Aidan Wharton’s latest beneficiary is D.C.’s Rainbow History Project

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Aidan Wharton (Photo courtesy of Wharton)

‘Girl From the North Country’
Dec. 12-31
The Kennedy Center
$49-$179
Kennedy-center.org

Last summer while travelling with his fiancé to San Francisco and parts of Europe, out actor Aidan Wharton faithfully reported on the queer history of each destination in his newsletter Queer Buffet (Queerbuffet.substack.com). 

When autumn rolled around and Wharton went back to work touring with the Broadway hit musical “Girl From the North Country,” he decided not only to continue writing about queer history but also to raise money for a LGBTQ non-profit in each tour stop. 

He’s rather brilliantly devised a way to combine showbiz with his new interests.

Throughout November in Cleveland, Wharton focused on Margie’s Hope, an organization dedicated to providing resources and services for transgender, non-binary, and gender expansive people in Northeast Ohio. And when the show soon lands at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theatre (Dec. 12-31), he plans to fundraise for the Rainbow History Project whose mission is to collect, preserve, and promote the history and culture of D.C.’s queer communities. 

Using social media, Wharton, with the help of like-minded influencers, creates awareness while asking supportive folks to give just $5 to the designated organization.  

During a recent chat via phone from chilly Des Moines, he explains that his bourgeoning project stems from a desire to help those doing selfless and often thankless nonprofit work related to enriching the lives of LGBTQ people during this wave of anti-LGBTQ sentiment. And, he adds, “the pandemic hasn’t made it any easier…a lot of the funding has dried up.”  

Written and directed by Irish theater maker/screenwriter Conor McPherson, Tony Award-winning “Girl From the North” is built around 20 songs by iconic troubadour and Civil Rights activist Bob Dylan. Set in a rundown guesthouse in 1934 Duluth, Minn., (Dylan’s hometown), the action unfolds over a week around Thanksgiving, chronicling the triumphs and tragedies that take place in residents’ little microcosm.

Wharton plays Elias, who along with his parents, is staying in the guesthouse. His song is “Duquesne Whistle,” a train inspired “chug song” somewhat reinterpreted. “It’s a sort of surreal moment and my favorite part of the show. To say anything else would be a spoiler,” he says. 

The energetic actor has been on tour since it kicked off in October in Minneapolis at the Orpheum Theatre, an historic venue once owned by Dylan. On Broadway he was a swing, covering Elias as well as five other parts. He knows the show well.

Before playing Elias, Wharton, 28, knew Dylan’s music mostly from repurposed takes on film and TV, and he always liked what he heard. Since joining the show, he’s listened to the original recordings in large part to know just how they’ve been re-imagined for the show.

“It’s a folky musical that still lives in the world of Dylan,” he says. “While a lot of the songs are taken out of his style, audiences seem pleasantly surprised. Not long ago a couple stopped me on the street. They’d been Dylan fans since the ‘60s. They said hearing this show made feel like they were hearing his words for the first time.”

“Some juke box musicals try to shoehorn the plot around songs, but ‘Girl From the North Country’ doesn’t. It feels like a play with a soundtrack. The songs don’t necessarily progress the plot but they accentuate what’s happening on stage; both the script and the music seem to benefit from each other.” 

At 17, Wharton left Hawaii where he was raised in a yurt in the middle of the jungle to attend Pace University in New York for a year followed by Penn State where he finished up a degree in theater and then back to New York City. He’s currently based in Astoria Queens where he lives with his intended. 

In addition to a lot of musical theater, he’s done some film including back-to-back parts in queer flicks “Fire Island” and “Bros.”

“When the tour ends next October,” says Wharton, “whatever this nonprofit venture becomes will become a bigger part of my life, possibly my career. I’ll always love acting and that’s ending for me, but there’s something about this new project in particular that’s made me feel fulfilled in a different way.”

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Local holiday theater season sparkles with expectation

Classic tales, modern retellings, Cirque Du Soleil, and more

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The Kings’ Singers (Photo by Frances Marshall)

Like Christmas itself, the local holiday theater season is filled with tradition, excitement, and sparkling expectation. And whatever way you might celebrate the holidays, the DMV theater scene has scores of options to treat you and yours to something special. Here’s a taste.

Beloved British ensemble The Kings’ Singers are booked at the Washington National Cathedral for one night only (Dec. 15). The proposed song list promises a mix of “Christmas favorites, popular familiar tunes, and some surprises.” 

Earlier this year, the popular a capella group made headlines when a bigoted Florida Christian college shamefully cancelled a performance by the musical sextet over ‘concerns’ about the sexual orientation of its members. But that’s in the past, and now the six good-looking blokes are celebrating the season in one of the nation’s foremost places of worship. Tix.cathedral.org

Baltimore’s gorgeous Hippodrome Performing Arts Center hosts the eye-popping Cirque Du Soleil production “Twas the Night Before,” Nov. 24-Dec. 3

Synetic Theater in Crystal City is bringing back “Snow Maiden” (Dec. 9 – Jan. 6), a dazzling movement piece based on a 19th century folk tale about a lonely boy who builds a girl from snow. Performed by Maryam Najafzada and Vato Tsikurishvili and created by Helen Hayes Award-winning choreographer and Synetic co-founder Irina Tsikurishvili. Synetictheater.org 

In Falls Church, Creative Cauldron presents “Madeline’s Christmas” (Dec. 1-17), a charming musical based on the classic book by author and illustrator Ludwig Bemelmans. “Madeline’s schoolmates and tutor are all sick in bed on Christmas Eve, unable to go home for Christmas to be with their families. So, it’s Madeline to the rescue! And with the help of a magical rug merchant, she takes her friends on a Christmas journey they will never forget.” Matt Conner directs. Creativecauldron.org

Rehoboth Beach’s Clear Space Theatre Company presents “Estella Scrooge,” Nov. 24-Dec. 10. It features Ebenezer Scrooge’s great great granddaughter in a modern retelling of the classic Christmas tale. clearspacetheatre.org

Olney Theatre Center spices up the season with “Drag the Halls” (Dec. 8 and 9), a holiday spectacular with fabulous queens Echinacea Monroe (Solomon Parker III), Evon Michelle (Baltimore’s Drag Performer of the Year) and Tiara Missou. Olneytheatre.org

Whether handed off discreetly in a sedate ivory envelope or placed under the tree in a silvery wrapped box, theater tickets make a great holiday gift. 

For a terrific kids’ prezzie, you might give the hour-long musical experience of “A Year in the Life of Frog and Toad” (through Jan. 7) at Imagination Stage in Bethesda. The endearing title characters are played by Deimoni Brewington and Casey Evans, respectively. Imaginationstage.org.

At Theater J there’s another show for kids, “Tiny Lights: Tales for Chanukah” (Dec. 3, 9, 10), created by Aaron Posner and Erin Weaver. “Taking inspiration from the great Chanukah tales of master storyteller Issac Bashevis Singer, our theatrical storytellers will weave tales out of words, a few simple props, and theatrical devices — and then teach you and your young kids how to do the same.” Sounds fun. Theatrej.org

 The Washington Ballet presents “The Nutcracker” at the gilded Warner Theatre (through Dec. 30). With Tchaikovsky’s timeless music and splendid choreography by Septime Weber, this 1882 Georgetown-set production features historical figures including George Washington and King George III, along with the usual suspects like children, rats, fairies and a mysterious godfather. Washingtonballet.org

Bethesda’s Music Center at Strathmore is bringing back “The Hip Hop Nutcracker” (Dec. 19-22), Tchaikovsky’s classic re-imagined with MC Kurtis Blow (“White Lines”). Strathmore.org  

Undeniably the lynchpin of D.C. holiday theater is the historic Ford’s Theatre version of “A Christmas Carol” (through Dec. 31), a popular Washington tradition for more than 30 years. Conceived by Michael Baron, this beautifully staged take on the Dickens’ classic features Craig Wallace as Scrooge who after a night of ghostly visits, rediscovers Christmas joy. 

Joining the cast this holiday season is versatile D.C. actor Kimberly Gilbert as the Ghost of Christmas Present. The Helen Hayes Award-winning Gilbert says, “I have been wanting to join this show for years and am so over the moon that I get to be a part of the ‘beautiful machine.’ This kind of process is the most unique I have embarked on in my twenty years on DC stages. Its intricate structure is so well-tuned, which surprisingly means it was flexible enough to allow a maniac like me into the mix.

For Gilbert, taking on Christmas Present has proved a joy. She says, “I don’t show Scrooge my powers by anything other than small gestures: a larger goose, an oil can, a few more coins in someone’s pocket. And I think that is quite purposeful as I am teaching him that it doesn’t take much to create a ripple effect of good on this Earth. That’s a huge lesson for all of us right now.”

On a personal note, Gilbert adds, “my performance is in honor of my amazing mother, Catherine Gilbert, who we lost in January of this year. My family’s holidays were so magical because of my mother, and I will bring her spirit on stage with me every night.” Fords.org

And not to be missed, the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington is back with “The Holiday Show” (Dec. 2, 9, and 10) at the historic Lincoln Theatre where they promise to break out the sparkle, reindeer antlers along with glorious music, new jokes, and loads fun. Gmcw.org

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Memories of time spent in India revealed in ‘Public Obscenities’

An inspiring production from writer-director Shayok Misha Chowdhury

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Shayok Misha Chowdhury

‘Public Obscenities’
Through Dec. 23
Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company
641 D St., N.W.
$52-$85
Woollymammoth.net

For writer-director Shayok Misha Chowdhury, the memories and imaginings of time spent in India are revealed in “Public Obscenities,” an inspiring new production currently playing at Woolly Mammoth Theatre. 

Born in India, raised in Boston and now living in New York, Chowdhury, 38, has visited his native country often over the years. Those visits serve as a connection to family and himself. “I was trying to a write a thing that reflected the intense specificities of my life as a uniquely situated gay man,” he explains. “It’s filled with intersecting longings among diasporic gay folks and those on the subcontinent.”

A Woolly co-production with Theatre For A New Audience (in which four of the seven characters are queer), “Public Obscenities” follows Indian born Choton (Abrar Haque) as he returns to Kolkata on a research trip with his Black American boyfriend Raheem (Jakeem Dante Powell). While visiting his family home, Choton acts as translator (Bangla and English) and interviews queer locals all while showing Raheem his world. 

In the past, Chowdhury, 38, has written musical experimental pieces but had never written a solo author naturalist play. “This is my debut as a playwright. What’s more, I’m directing something that I’ve written for the first time.” But being a director is squarely in his wheelhouse.

WASHINGTON BLADE: How much of “Public Obscenities” is about you, Misha?

SHAYOK MISHA CHOWDHURY: The plot isn’t autobiographical, but the circumstances are. My partner is an African-American video artist and I’m more words driven. We’ve travelled many times. Unlike Choton, I don’t have a Ph.D. 

Definitely Choton’s a character close to my skin. He lives in states robust fluency in mother tongue and feels a longing for what might had been had he remained. 

He feels very much at home being gay in Kolkata. He can desire and be desired by people who look like him and speak to them in his mother tongue. There’s a cross connection: He likes what they have and they like that he lives in America with accepting parents and can easily have a relationship with a Black man. 

BLADE: It is also a bilingual piece?

CHOWDHURY: Entirely bilingual in a very natural way. Characters speak either Bangla or English given circumstances. Choton’s partner doesn’t speak Bangla so the main character is translating in real time. When Bangla-speaking characters are in a scene, the audience is reading supertitles.

BLADE: Is it tough casting a bilingual piece?

CHOWDHURY: Yes, more than anything it was a casting challenge. Finding these actors is what made the piece possible. I’m very glad we had the muscle to find these folks and keep them in the production by flying them in and housing them.  

BLADE: And place is very important? 

CHOWDHURY: The house is a character in the play. Very much a scenic replica from real life; I’ve spent time in that house. For the Woolly production, the scenic designer has added a meta conceit: You enter through a movie theater and behind the screen of the cinema hall that house is revealed. But once there, it will feel the same.

“Public Obscenities” has been described as theater verité. The aesthetic leans into documentary precision and mimics the rhythms of real life. There’s been a rewrite for this latest iteration. We have the same cast that appeared at Soho Rep in New York. They were assembled from a wide-ranging casting search. Specificity is required in terms of performance, language, and gender. 

BLADE: But it’s not the usual queer story

CHOWDHURY: It’s not a coming out story; not a family conflict, it’s more about the main character working so hard to prove that he’s native to this place yet still himself.  

BLADE: Is it hard to be objective when directing your own work?

CHOWDHURY: That’s always a question you have to ask yourself. Here my proximity was a gift. The nature of this project involved precise vision.

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