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From Williams to Albee

Gay playwrights shine in two jam-packed retrospectives

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An unprecedented survey of gay playwright Edward Albee’s vast canon begins this week at Arena Stage (Photo courtesy of Arena).

Spring is upon us, and that means the 2010-11 theater season isn’t getting any younger. Still, a lot remains to be seen: Highlights include a pair of festivals celebrating the beyond brilliant careers of two great, gay American playwrights: Edward Albee and the late Tennessee Williams.

Because Arena Stage is committed to focusing on the best of American theater, and Albee is widely considered our greatest living dramatist, the company is wisely spotlighting his works this spring at its impressively redone Southwest D.C. home, the Mead Center for American Theater.

The centerpiece of the festival are fully staged productions of Albee’s searing domestic drama “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (through April 10) starring Tracy Letts and Amy Morton as the boozy, battling spouses George and Martha; and Albee’s more recent work “At Home at the Zoo” (through April 24), a riveting peek into the lives of three New Yorkers. Thirty events comprised primarily of staged readings of his plays are scheduled — the festival is unprecedentedly featuring Albee’s entire canon.

Similarly, across town the Georgetown University Theater and Performance Studies Program at the Davis Performing Arts Center, in partnership with the American Studies Program and Arena Stage, is presenting a very ambitious Tennessee Williams Centennial Festival (Tenn Cent Fest).  Included in the extensive, multidisciplinary program is a production of “The Glass Menagerie” featuring Sarah Marshall, who is gay, as the former Southern belle mother Amanda Wingfield, a character based on the playwright’s own mother.

Along with many plays, concerts and screenings there will be a staged reading of Williams’ phantasmagorical allegory “Camino Real” (March 25) featuring Broadway actors Theodore Bikel and Kathleen Chalfant. Additionally, gay filmmaker and Williams fan John Waters is performing his solo show “This Filthy World” (March 27).

For musical theater lovers, there’s this: Broadway legend Bernadette Peters is starring in the Kennedy Center’s hotly anticipated production of gay composer Stephen Sondheim’s “Follies.” Staged by Eric Schaeffer (Signature Theatre’s gay artistic director), the Tony Award-winning musical centers on a reunion of aging, ex-chorines on the eve of the destruction of the theater where they once performed. This revival’s star-jammed cast also features (among others) Elaine Paige, Linda Lavin, Florence Lacey and Régine, the flame-haired chanteuse of a certain age who became famous for entertaining jet setters in her eponymously named discotheques in Paris and New York.

Other spring musicals include Signature Theatre’s world premiere musical comedy “And the Curtain Rises” which “loosely re-imagines the theatrical bedlam surrounding the creation of the first American musical;” also at Signature is “Side by Side by Sondheim” (April 26-June 12) a sampling of the musical genius’ early work staged by gay director Matthew Gardiner; and a national tour of “The Color Purple” (April 12-24) is coming to the oddly underused National Theatre.

On a more intimate musical note, Galactica (the pink-haired alter ego of Ganymede Arts gay artistic director Jeffrey Johnson) is premiering her new, yet-to-be-named show (May 20, 21) at Black Fox Lounge. Again accompanied by talented gay musician Christopher Wingert, Galactica promises to sing — not lip sync — a fabulous set list including songs by Dusty Springfield, The Rolling Stones and many more.

In March, Shakespeare Theatre Company (STC) presents Oscar Wilde’s “An Ideal Husband” (March 8-April 10), a wickedly funny, timeless comedy that deals with blackmail, political corruption and public and private honor set in the gay playwright’s upper class England.

Following the Wilde play, local veteran actor Holly Twyford, who is gay, will make her STC debut in a production of Harold Pinter’s chilling study of perception “Old Times” (May 17-July 3). STC’s gay artistic director Michael Kahn is slated to direct.

Throughout April, Gala Hispanic Theatre presents “Divorcees, Evangelists and Vegetarians” (4/7-5/1) a wired Latin comedy about three women at their wits’ end who ultimately “find comfort, and salvation, in each other.” Like almost all of Gala’s offerings, the show will be performed in Spanish with English surtitles. ]

Synetic Theater — the company celebrated for its inventive choreography, imaginative staging, and fit casts — is interpreting Shakespeare’s “King Lear” (thru 4/24).

Factory 449: a theater collective is doing playwright Caridad Svich’s “Magnificent Waste” (April 9-May 8), “a glittering but brutal exploration of modern society’s superficiality and the objectification of the human body.” Collective co-founder John Moletress, who is gay, is scheduled to direct.

Beginning in May, Washington Shakespeare Company joins the Tennessee Williams’ salute with the “Tennessee Continuum” (May 12-July 3) a double-bill of rarely performed one acts: “Portrait of a Madonna,” an early sketch of the character who would become Blanche DuBois, and “The Gnädiges Fräulein,” the “thinly disguised allegory of his own creative life.”

And finally, for those willing to break the bank for a chance to hobnob with theater legends in environs more comfortable than the stage door, there are options: Arena Stage is honoring Edward Albee with the American Artist Award (March 14) at its marvelous waterfront campus. In addition to cocktails and dinners there will be tributes from Elaine Stritch and Kathleen Turner. A month later, Signature is stylishly honoring Bernadette Peters with the Stephen Sondheim Award (April 11) at the swank Italian Embassy.

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Signature’s acclaimed music director tackles ‘Sweeney Todd’

Kalbfleisch excited to conduct 15-piece orchestration

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Jon Kalbfleisch in action. (Photo by Christopher Mueller)

‘Sweeney Todd’
Through July 9
Signature Theatre
4200 Campbell Ave.
Arlington, Va. 22206
$40-119
Sigtheatre.org

Typically, music directors play second fiddle to directors. “That’s just how it is in theater,” says Jon Kalbfleisch, longtime resident music director at Signature Theatre. “It’s different with opera. But those audiences have altogether different expectations.”

For the hugely talented Kalbfleisch, vying for attention has never been a concern. With 10 Helen Hayes Awards and an astounding 30 nominations under his belt, he’s had his time in the limelight, and more importantly, the out music director is focused on the work.

Currently he’s music directing his fourth production of composer Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” at Signature Theatre and he couldn’t be happier. He counts the famously hard to sing “Sweeney” as both his favorite Sondheim show and among his all-time favorite scores overall. He says “like all Sondheim shows it has a lot of challenges, the ensemble stuff is particularly hard and the finale is really tricky. When it goes perfectly though, it’s wonderful.”

A tale of revenge soaked in melodrama and dark humor, the 1979 hit musical set in grubby 19th century London is rife with memorable numbers including “The Worst Pies in London,” “A Little Priest,” “Johanna” and “Not While I’m Around.” In Signature’s current offering directed by Sarna Lapine, Sweeney, the disgruntled, murderous barber, and his ruthless pie-making accomplice Mrs. Lovett are played respectively by Broadway actors Nathaniel Stampley and Bryonha Marie.

Kalbfleisch first music directed “Sweeney” (Signature’s first ever musical) in 1991 at the company’s then home, the Gunston Arts Center in Arlington; his second Signature “Sweeney” starring Norm Lewis and Donna Migliaccio was in 1998 at Signature’s legendary garage space; and there was a third production in the MAX Theatre, their top-notch permanent home in Shirlington in 2010 with Ed Gero and Sherri L. Edelen.

“What makes the current production unique,” explains Kalbfleisch, who lives just a short walk from Signature, “is a 15-piece orchestration that Jonathan Tunick [famed longtime Sondheim collaborator] did for a production in the UK. When Tunick takes his own work and makes it for a small ensemble it feels utterly complete. The way he redid it, it doesn’t feel smaller than the original.”

Long before the cast convenes, Kalbfleisch begins his preparation, attacking a score as if he’s never seen it before. For several weeks, he rehearses the orchestra, ensemble, and leads separately and together. Once the show opens, he conducts the 15-piece orchestra at every performance. Arduous? Maybe. But he enjoys every moment.

A meticulous professional prone to generous laughter, Kalbfleisch’s first love is piano, but conducting runs a close second. He says “the opportunity to stand up and conduct 15 players with the terrific cast of ‘Sweeney’ that we have right now I’m in a very happy place.”

Like many talented young pianists, the Lawton, Okla., native was recruited into musical theater: “My high school’s choir director said you’re going to be my accompanist. Similarly, my band director volunteered me to play piano for the school music ‘You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown’ I had little choice.”

“The experience was lots of fun, but it never occurred to me that it would be a big part of my career.”

He studied classic piano at Cameron University in Oklahoma, and went on to earn a Master of Music, at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. It was in Texas that he really dipped his toe into music direction at a small professional theater with shows like “Pirates of Penzance” and a fully orchestrated “A Chorus Line.”

Over his more than 30-year tenure at Signature, Kalbfleisch has music directed 33 Sondheim musicals. As an integral part of Signature, a Tony Award-winning regional theater, he’s had the chance to collaborate with Broadway luminaries including Sondheim, Angela Lansbury, Chita Rivera, and Tunick. He’s humbled and happy by the way things have worked out.

Looking forward, Kalbfleisch is ready for more pared down, big music Sondheim shows. He says, “Matthew [Matthew Gardiner, Signature’s artistic director] is very appreciative of the music and keen on maintaining doing shows with as big of an orchestra that we can manage.”

He’s a terrifically busy guy. In addition to his work at Signature, Kalbfleisch is – among a zillion other things — the conductor of his hometown Lawton Philharmonic Orchestra and serves as the music director and organist at Capitol Hill United Methodist Church.

Sundays can be complicated. They might include church service, a matinee, and an evening performance. When his schedule is tight, it’s just eating, sleeping, and working and not much else.

And when “Sweeney” closes in July? Kalbfleisch says he’ll drop. Until the next job.

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Arena’s ‘Exclusion’ is a piece of art about art

Majority Asian production features intelligent performance by Karoline

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Karoline brings intelligence and energy to every role they tackle.

‘Exclusion’
Through June 25 
Arena Stage
1101 Sixth St., S.W.
$56-95
Arenastage.org

When Asian-American historian Katie’s best-selling book about the racist Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 is optioned for a mini-series by a Hollywood mogul, she couldn’t happier. However, artistic and commercial visions clash and things go awry. This is the premise of Ken Lin’s new comedy “Exclusion” now at Arena Stage. 

Katie is played by Karoline, the mononymously named New York-based actor who brings intelligence and energy to every role they tackle. 

“I’m similar to Katie — honest to a fault, optimistic, both strong and naïve,” says Karoline, 28. “For me, the challenge is watching Katie choose yes or no at every turn. Should she address what’s coming at her with truth or not? Or hide what she’s thinking? My struggle in life has been similar. How do I stay true and at the same time get what I want in a corrupt world.”

When asked to be part of “Exclusion’s” early development, Karoline was unsure: Doing a piece of art about art can be tricky. But they soon changed their mind. 

“The workshop changed my life. I got into the room and it was majority Asian. Seeing Ken [Lin] talk about coming back to theater and about being able to write about Asian people with a play that’s ostensibly a comedy and obviously super personal, drawing from his life and what he’s learned from colleagues.” 

Karoline describes their experience with anti-Asian racism as more microaggressions. “I don’t have people point at me saying ‘you’re a chink.’ It’s been subtler versions of that.”

As a stage actor, they’ve had an activist history, taking complaints of racism to a company’s board, a move that can be contentious. Typically, it’s preferred actors “be grateful, listen and interpret, and not speak up.” 

When a respected mentor later asked Karoline whether they wanted to be an actor or an activist, they didn’t understand why it had to be mutually exclusive. “I was too young to say it could be both. Now it depends on the situation. Maybe both in theater because I have more of a career there. But in TV, I don’t know.”

Karoline was born in Shanghai and grew up in South Texas where they had little exposure to the arts. After graduation from a pre-med magnet high school (with no intention of a career in medicine), they headed off to Harvard on full scholarship: “I showed my family that I can be smart, but I was going to do my own thing.” 

They took a gap year from Harvard to train at Atlantic Acting School, then went to apprentice at Actors Theatre of Louisville. Weeks after moving to New York they were cast as closeted lesbian Bo in Tom Stoppard’s “The Hard Problem” at Lincoln Center Theater.

“I’ve played more than one lesbian in my career,” says Karoline with a chuckle.  In the fall, they can be seen in the entire first season of “Death and Other Details” (Hulu) as a very rich lesbian heiress, a darkly funny role. 

“It seems when you’re Asian, you’re expected to talk about your parents’ accents or dumplings,” they add. “The narrative is vivid and bright. I wanted to do classical theater so my work could speak about everything else. From the start, I was ready to do the work, and hoped to have a long career that included many different things.”

Not long ago, Karoline shed their surname owing to a difficult childhood and a feeling of estrangement from their family. “It’s unusual, especially for Asian Americans, but after some self-healing and thinking, I decided I didn’t need it. Now I feel a lot freer.” 

And there have been other changes in addition to their last name including coming out as queer and sharing their gender identity. This is the first year they’ve only used “they” pronouns. 

“When you’re queer, I believe you’re always queer even if you’re not in a queer relationship. I think of my character like that. In this space and time, Katie’s with a man but that doesn’t mean that’s the whole conversation about this person. 

“For me, playing Katie in ‘Exclusion’ has been a huge vote of confidence. Sometimes it takes someone writing something wonderful and casting you for you to know where you need to be.”

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‘one in two’ lets audience choose which parts actors must play

‘Pose’ actor Ryan Jamaal Swain says approach ‘keeps you on your toes’

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Ryan Jamaal Swain (Photo by Matt Doyle)

‘one in two’ 
June 1-25 
Mosaic Theater Company at Atlas Performing Arts Center
1333 H St., N.E.
$29-$64
Mosaictheatre.org

Out actor Ryan Jamaal Swain is best known for having played homeless dancer Damon, on FX’s “Pose,” the popular queer series revolving around ball culture in late 1980s New York. Along with television, Swain has a great love for theater. And now in a homecoming of sorts, the Howard University graduate is at Mosaic Theater for the area premiere of “one in two,” playwright Donja R. Love’s play inspired by his own HIV diagnosis and the resilience of the LGBTQ community. 

In addition to Swain, 29, the cast features queer actors Justin Weaks and Michael Kevin Darnall (both of whom recently a finished Arena’s production of “Angels in America”). Raymond O. Caldwell directs. 

The audience is invited to choose which of three parts each actor must play for each performance. 

WASHINGTON BLADE: A different part every night! That’s a lot. 

SWAIN: Yes, honey. But learning three tracks keeps you on your toes. It’s one of those things. When I first sawthe world premiere in New York, I thought it was a gimmick but it’s not. For me, I’m always looking for the next challenge. What will expand my prowess. With “one in two,” the work kept coming across my desk so when the opportunity came up to come back to D.C. [Swain’s currently based in New York] with a director I knew, I took it. 

BLADE: Where and when does “one in two” take place?

SWAIN: Different places: bar, home, doctor’s waiting room. Time wise, it’s set in “now/until.” The central character is a gay man who anchors the play and the others are various characters he finds on his hero journey. I won’t tell you who they are, you’ll need to come to the show to learn that. 

BLADE: With “Pose,” the time and place were very specific. 

SWAIN: Yes, the end of the ‘80s in New York.With any type of queer stories, especially when you want to tell them with love and integrity there’s a lot of conversation when you acknowledge a generation of unsung heroes. I stand on their shoulders to be able to do what I do. 

BLADE: After graduating from Howard, your journey out of D.C. was swift. 

SWAIN:  Yes, it was. I left D.C. immediately following my graduation from Howard. I graduated May 7, 2016, went back home to Birmingham, Ala., exhausted my graduation money, and decided to make my own hero’s journey and moved to New York. After three or four months, “Pose” came knocking on my door. I booked it and pretty much got started. 

BLADE Did TV change your life? 

SWAIN TV and film ask you to juggle more than just being a good actor. Publicity, image, etc. There are so many more eyes on you. 

BLADE: And how did you handle it? 

SWAIN: I come from a family that’s not afraid to show when you’ve made a mistake. I was brought up to look at failures as lessons. It was a lot. I was just 22 at that time. Taught me a lot about who I am and who I will become. How to focus and work under duress.

I like TV and film but I will always make space for theater in my career. Makes me anchor back into self. 

BLADE:  When did you come out?

SWAIN:  I came out to a friend at Howard. I sat her down in the cafeteria and invited her into my life. I don’t believe in coming out per se. I think it’s your right to fully welcome people into your life. She already knew, of course. 

Also, while studying acting in Britain, I did a one-man show about queer poet Langston Hughes. Moving through his journey gave me the strength to have my own voice. Finding other queer folks gave me the strength to live my own story. 

BLADE: How has your experience at Mosaic been?

SWAIN: Great. When deciding to do the part I had deep conversation with Reginald Douglas and Serge Seiden [Mosaic’s artistic and managing directors, respectively]. I’m hungry about communication, collaboration and community. Mosaic does that. And they do it wrapped up in integrity and love. 

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