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The path of Kahn

Keeper of the classics celebrates 25 years directing theater in D.C.

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Michael Kahn has a long reputation of making classical theater accessible to contemporary audiences. He’s celebrating 25 years in town this month. A party is planned for October. (Blade photos by Michael Key)

When Michael Kahn came to Washington in 1986, he intended to stay for two years tops. The plan was to share his theater expertise for a while and then get back to his life in New York and continue teaching and staging plays and operas.

But luckily for local theatergoers, things played out very differently. Instead, Kahn remained in town as artistic director of the Shakespeare Theater Company (STC) where he’s currently gearing up for the classical troupe’s 25th anniversary season.

Seated at a long conference table in STC’s busy administration offices on Capitol Hill, Kahn explains how he initially came to D.C. to help save the then-failing Folger Theatre and stayed on when he was named artistic director of a newly created Shakespeare Theatre at the Folger. Later he orchestrated the Shakespeare Theatre’s move to the larger Landsburgh location, adopted the STC name and more recently helped to expand the company’s home with the grand 775-seat Sidney Harman Hall.

“I took the job happily but not for a moment along the way did I think I was in for the long haul,” says Kahn, who is gay. “I’d think about leaving but then something interesting would always come up — an expanded season, the educational program, the STC Free-For-All [a terrific Washington tradition that annually offers free performances of a Shakespearean classic to the general public] and, or course, I’m glad I stuck around.”

Over the years, Kahn has successfully pursued STC’s core mission of doing classic theater “in an accessible, skillful, imaginative, American style that honors playwrights’ language and intentions while viewing their plays through a 21st-century lens.” In doing so, he’s created arguably the nation’s premier classical company and emerged as one of America’s foremost directors of Shakespeare.

Kahn alone selects the STC’s titles and directors. For the upcoming milestone season that kicks off in late August, Kahn wants to make things a little special. In addition to seven plays (a mix of dramas and comedies), he plans to celebrate the Bard with a pair of musicals performed in concert-style staging: Rodgers and Hart’s “The Boys from Syracuse,” a late-1930s swing version of “The Comedy of Errors;” and John Guare’s rock opera “Two Gentlemen of Verona.”

As a special anniversary treat to himself, Kahn will direct Eugene O’Neil’s “Strange Interlude,” a famously difficult play about love and deception that he’s longed to stage for years. He also plans to work with some of his favorite actors (many of whom can’t be named until contracts are signed), as well as two former STC associate directors who’ve made good outside of the nest – P.J. Paparelli (artistic director of Chicago’s American Theater Company since 2007) and successful New York-based freelance director Ethan McSweeny — who’ll stage “The Two Gentlemen From Verona” (the original non-musical) and “Much Ado About Nothing,” respectively.

D.C. native McSweeny met Kahn while still a secondary student at St. Albans School. He invited the director to speak to his drama club and Kahn agreed. During college and after, he interned with Kahn at STC, and at just 22, he was named the company’s resident assistant director.

“My four years at STC were graduate school for me,” McSweeny says. “I think directing is a craft that’s learned from watching a master craftsman like Michael in action. He doesn’t dictate. He just does it.

“Michael is also a tough teacher. With him, you’ve got to bring your A game,” McSweeny adds. “We alums of Kahn all maintain high standards — we inherited that from Michael. But in addition to the stick there’s the carrot: Michael can be a torrent of creative passion and it’s thrilling to be in the vortex with him.”

The school of Kahn isn’t reserved exclusively for promising directors. Actors have benefited as well. Via phone from New York, Veanne Cox, a delightful, versatile actor who rapidly has become an STC regular, recounts how six or so years ago Kahn happened to catch her playing the very dramatic part of a woman dying from cancer, and afterward matter-of-factly commented that she was made for Restoration Comedy. The story still makes Cox laugh, and she is quick to add that soon after Kahn cast her in STC’s production of the classic comedy “The Beaux Stratagem” and changed her life.

“Prior to knowing Michael I’d done very little classical theater,” Cox — who memorably appeared as the heckler in a “Seinfeld” episode — says. “Because of him, my career is flourishing in new ways. My best work experiences have been at STC, better than Broadway and off-Broadway. [In the fall, Cox is slated to return to STC as Beatrice in “Much Ado About Nothing.”] The actors are exquisite to work with, and D.C. audiences are better educated than New York audiences about the works. Because of Michael, they understand language and themes. He has trained them how to appreciate and understand classical theater.”

STC is not Kahn’s first act, far from it. He began his career in New York in the ‘60s, directing for gay playwright Edward Albee and Joseph Papp’s Shakespeare in the Park. His Broadway successes include revivals of “Showboat,” “The Royal Family” and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (starring a young and gorgeous Elizabeth Ashley). He’s also earned excellent reviews staging opera and regional theater. Before coming to Washington, he was artistic director for the American Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford, Conn.; producing director for the McCarter Theatre; and founder and head of The Chautauqua Conservatory Theater. In addition, Kahn maintained a parallel career as an educator, commuting to Manhattan as head of the Drama Division of New York’s prestigious Juilliard School until 2006. He has won multiple Helen Hayes Awards for his STC work, and is frequently honored by the LGBT community.

Repeatedly, Kahn’s skills and impressive vitae have and continue to lure well-known actors like Elizabeth Ashley, Stacy Keach, Kelly McGillis and the late Dixie Carter to STC. He enjoys working with big names. Usually, Kahn says, big names become famous because they’re good.

“Well, not always,” he backtracks. “Anyone who waits in line at a supermarket can’t help but know Kim Kardashian, but that doesn’t mean I’ll be working with her any time soon.”

Growing up in Brooklyn as an only child with “all the vices and problems that that entails,” Khan was just 5 when his Russian immigrant mother introduced him to the works of Shakespeare. He attended High School for the Performing Arts and went on to Columbia University where he directed plays for the French club (a pre-famous Andy Warhol designed the set for one of the productions). Kahn came out early. He never struggled with his sexual orientation, only unrequited love. As a young man he carried an unreciprocated torch for gay playwright Terrence McNally.  He outed himself to the Washington Post in 1986 and believes a lot of conservative society’s problems with the arts is, in fact, subterranean homophobia. Lately he’s come to the conclusion that good direction requires sensitivity, and whether it comes from a gay or straight person makes little difference.

Kahn says it’s possible to have a relationship despite an all-consuming professional life, but you pay a price: “With me here and Frank [Donnelly, Kahn’s late, longtime partner] in New York, we were often apart. I wasn’t there when he died.” A psychotherapist, Donnelly died in his sleep shortly after 9-11. He’d spent his last days counseling those who had lost loved ones in the World Trade Center collapse.

When asked if he’s in a relationship now, Kahn replies playfully, “Yes, at least that’s what it says on Facebook.”

And does he miss working in New York?

“I could never do in New York what I do here,” he says. “I’d be in a 200-seat theater with a much smaller budget. They’re just not interested in lesser known shows like Musset’s ‘Lorenzaccio” from our [2005] season, or David Ives’ adaptation of Regnard’s 1706 masterpiece ‘The Heir Apparent’ that we’re doing in the fall.”

Highfalutin legacy talk isn’t Kahn’s style; however, he will say that he “really wants to make sure the theater is in a good financial position so anyone who wants to take over [his] job will also want to stay.” But for today, Kahn continues doing what he does best — thinking of ways to bring more high quality, classical theater to Washington.

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Theater

Six die in ‘Ride the Cyclone,’ then must plead to live again

A musical appeal for second chances

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Nick Martinez in ‘Ride the Cyclone.’ (Photo by T Charles Erickson Photography)

‘Ride the Cyclone’
Through Feb. 19
Arena Stage
1101 Sixth St., S.W.
$66-$105 
Arenastage.org

What better way to bond than landing in the afterlife together? In “Ride the Cyclone,” a quirky musical now at Arena Stage, six high school choir members perish in a freak roller coaster crash. After croaking, the sextet passes into a sort of limbo where they each have the chance to argue — in song — why they deserve to live again. While vying for the top spot, they learn a lot about each other. 

Out actor Nick Martinez plays Noel Gruber, one of the young choristers. He’s the only gay kid in a rural town who works at Taco Bell. But in his torchy song “Noel’s Lament,” he sings of his dream to be a cold-hearted Parisian hooker.

Martinez says, “It’s gritty, sexy, and hilarious — not at all Disney. My character is acting out his complete fantasy and taking you along for the ride. It’s especially relatable to anyone who grew up queer.” 

And the New York-based Hispanic actor who grew up queer in Coral Springs, South Florida, understands the material: “I know Noel. So many people in the queer community know him too. Not being able to authentically be ourselves hurts. And when we finally are ourselves and know the rewards that come with that, there’s a lot of release and ecstasy.”

Fortunately, Martinez was raised in a supportive atmosphere. Still, he was reluctant to be entirely himself, but theater proved a healthy outlet. He says, “Performing was a way to express myself and go balls to the wall with whatever feelings I was having, put it in a spotlight, and share that with an entire audience.”

As a third grader Martinez found his way into theater via his older sister whom he adored. When she starred as Cinderella in the gym of their elementary school, he was there to witness her backstage quick-change into a ballgown. It was the coolest thing he’d ever seen. 

The following year, he played the Tin Man in “The Wizard of Oz.” An old video shows his opening night reaction to enthusiastic applause — first delightedly astonished and then beaming. It’s then, Martinez says, that he became hooked. 

After graduating from Elon University with a BFA in Music Theatre in 2015, he moved to New York City where he almost seamlessly transitioned into a working actor. He’s played parts in terrific shows in admirable places including Moody in “Anne of Green Gables” at Goodspeed Opera House; Doody in “Grease” at The REV; Twink (covered) in “Bat Out of Hell” at New York City Center; Crutchie in “Newsies” at John W. Engeman Theater on Long Island; and Pinball Lad, a small but memorable role in “The Who’s Tommy” at The Kennedy Center – part of Broadway Center Stage.

With music, lyrics and book by Jacob Richmond and Brooke Maxwell, “Ride the Cyclone” premiered off-Broadway in 2008 and soon developed a sort of cultish following. “There’s nothing quite like it,” Martinez says. “It’s a silly, quirky, weird little show that tugs at your heartstrings. You need to see it to get the full impact.”  

Several years ago, he was up for a different part in the show but it didn’t pan out, so when he was cast as Noel, a part he wanted badly, he was elated. Before opening at Arena in January, the Sarah Rasmussen-directed production played at Princeton’s McCarter Theatre last spring.

When the Arena run ends, Martinez is unsure what’s next for him – the actor’s eternal lament, but he seems more than OK with that. In fact, Martinez embraces the situation. 

“There’s something grounding in letting the universe take you where it takes you and trusting in that.”

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Theater

‘A Room in the Castle’ highlights the women of ‘Hamlet’

Trans director DeHais joins Folger Theatre’s Reading Room festival

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Eddie DeHais

‘The Reading Room’
‘A Room in the Castle’
Jan. 19 -21 
Folger Theatre @The Lutheran Church of the Reformation  
212 East Capitol St., S.E.
$25 for all four readings; $50 all access pass includes all 4 readings and all pre-show conversations and special events. Students free 1/2 hour before each reading and talk with valid ID.

Franco-American trans director Eddie DeHais is a triple citizen who speaks four languages and works all over the world. This week, they’re landing in Washington to direct a reading of Lauren Gunderson’s new play “A Room in the Castle,” part of Folger Theatre’s upcoming festival, The Reading Room. 

“A Room in the Castle,” focuses on the stories of the women of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” Queen Gertrude, Ophelia, and Tatiana, a middle-aged servant. The traditionally doomed and/or unheard women are seeking a level of safety and freedom in Ophelia’s bedroom, a place away from an increasingly dangerous court and mad prince where they can be themselves – something that’s forbidden in the greater world. Together they sing, laugh, and argue, trying to create hope in a hopeless situation. 

DeHais, who specializes in staging new works and reimagining classics, brings a lot to the collaboration: In addition to boatloads of energy and curiosity, they have a sharp ear and keen sense of humor. 

Recently recovered from a gnarly case of laryngitis, DeHais takes time to talk about the project. “Lauren [Gunderson] has written a beautiful piece that’s very funny, but also achingly painful. People will see themselves and see their mothers in the play’s gently blocked reading.” 

When we spoke, DeHais (who is nonbinary, trans, and bisexual) had just finished writing a greeting to the three-woman cast. In it, they spoke about the possibilities of living in a room. During the pandemic, DeHais as a grad student at Brown University in Providence spent a lot of time in a tiny apartment. Classes, community, and projects were cancelled, so they took up the ukulele and made a weekly drive to sing songs, admittedly rather badly, to their 90-something grandmother. The experience brought the two much closer together in a deeper, less predicated on structure relationship that continues now. 

Similarly, the women in “A Room in the Castle” make discoveries: Their room is a safe but dynamic place filled with wonderfully awkward moments of people trying to connect despite barriers of class and expectation. For instance, we find the Queen of Denmark getting drunk with a servant whom she never noticed before things went awry in the castle, adds DeHais.

“I love ‘Hamlet,’ but this is a play that tells the other half of the story. And because ‘Hamlet’ is a rich text which means there’s a rich story happening behind closed doors.”

The director began making attempts at coming out starting in their teens; a final public proclamation in their twenties stuck. They say it’s the best thing they ever did: “If I have to read another play about how painful it is to be a trans person I will kick the wall. And I’m asked to direct those. My life is amazing. Being me is the best thing that ever happened to me. There are very difficult parts of that story but that’s not my life.”

Based between New York and Berlin, they recently worked on a production of Salome in Paris. Next season, they’re slated to direct a lot in Seattle. “When offers come in, I ask my agent to tell whoever it is that I’m local – then I’ll get to wherever they want me.” 

DeHais closes with a nod to Folger Theatre’s director of programming/artistic director Karen Ann Daniels: “Few people know how to create community better than Karen Ann. We met when she was running the Public’s Mobile Unit in New York, and we stayed in touch. I don’t know D.C. well, so it was doubly flattering that she reached out. And where better than D.C. to talk about political structures that are silencing us?”

Other new plays featured in The Reading Room are Al Letson’s “Julius X,” a re-visioning of “The Tragedy of Julius Caesar” set during the life and times of Malcolm X; “Hamlet,” a radical bilingual New York City-set reimagining of the original created by Reynaldo Piniella and Emily Lyon; “Our Verse in Time to Come,” a Shakespeare inspired piece about legacy and storytelling by Malik Work and Karen Ann Daniels.

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‘Safe Word’ explores Dom-sub relationship

An emotionally stunted masochist confronts self-loathing

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Mauricio Pita stars in ‘Safe Word.’ (Photo by Lauren Emerson) 

In “Safe Word,” out Venezuelan-American actor Mauricio Pita plays Cesar, an emotionally stunted masochist who’s forced to confront his self-loathing after his Dom, Bear (Jonathan Adriel), reinterprets the rules of their game. 

“For the film’s characters, it’s about taking it to the next level,” says Pita, 37. “The experience has been very personal because a lot of the characters’ stories are also my own. Consequently, I put myself in a very vulnerable position. Still, I felt I had no choice but to tell this story.” 

A short but visually and emotionally compelling work, “Safe Word” is produced by Tepui Media (a name inspired by the flat-top mountains in the Guiana Highlands of South America). Prior to the pandemic, Pita, who serves as the company’s executive director, was mostly involved in theater, but increasingly, film has become his medium of choice. 

Pita also works at Arena Stage where he manages and collaborates with the director of education in executing the artistic vision of Arena’s devised theater program, Voices of Now (VON), which produces 10 original works each season. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Mauricio managed VON’s transition from a theater festival to a feature film.

Filmed over about a week last summer in a rented D.C. apartment, “Safe Word” wasn’t easy for Pita who as producer, filmmaker, in addition to actor, likened the experience to exposing himself through layers. He says, “Awards and money would be great, but my measure of success was getting the film made, getting to the finish line.”

After debuting “Safe Word” at GALA Hispanic Theatre in November, the goal has been to get the film seen. It’s currently slated to screen at the upcoming Ocean City Film Festival and Washington International Cinema Festival at Miracle Theatre; they’re also focusing on LGBTQ festivals.  

WASHINGTON BLADE: What was your inspiration for the piece? 

MAURICIO PITA: My own inner voices. I’d share journal entries with Eva von Schweinitz, our storywriter, and she divided my experience into two characters. I really had no choice but to share my feelings. I felt compelled. I no longer wanted to feel scared.

BLADE: Was there a process?

PITA:  It was a collaboration. I wrote up the idea that I wanted to make a film about my inner voices and self-conflict. I handed over journal entrees and she interviewed me. It was like therapy sessions.  

Eva then presented me with story options including superhero/ romantic comedy/ and a bondage story, the one I thought was most dangerous and scariest to do. If we failed it would certainly be the most embarrassing. 

BLADE: Can you talk about your inner dialogue?

PITA: Sure, it’s about me not being loveable. Me being queer made me think I wouldn’t be loved. Growing up I was scared of being gay, I saw being gay as a death sentence. Those feelings don’t just go away because you come out. 

BLADE: Does it get better?

PITA: I’m 37, more open, but it’s not automatically fixed. Over many years of therapy new positive voices were introduced but even so those negative voices aren’t entirely wiped out. They argue in my head and that’s something I wanted to investigate.

“Safe Word” asks how comfortable are we at choosing our own pain? And what could hold us back from connecting to ourselves and to one another? In the film, they arrive at a paradigm-shifting result neither one of them expects.

BLADE: How did you select Jonathan to co-star? “Safe Word” is a very intimate piece. 

PITA: By the third or fourth draft we were looking at casting. And though I didn’t know him that well, I immediately thought of him. 

His body is insane, muscularly imposing. Yet there’s a softness that I was intrigued by. I suggested him to our director, Christopher Cunetto. We scheduled a screen test, basically looking for chemistry. Jonathan was phenomenal. He took it very seriously; he came prepared and ready. I had a really good time working with him.

BLADE: Are you into bondage offscreen? 

PITA: Well, of course, I am. I like role playing. I’ve been ashamed about stuff like that my whole life. But fuck it. Why not? I’ve learned that you have power in those situations even when you’re the sub. After all, my character Cesar has the safe word. He can stop everything. That’s a lot of power.

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