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Studio’s Muse

New artistic director first to succeed founder Zinoman

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David Muse, the new artistic director of the Studio Theatre. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

He has been labeled a “wunderkind,” but no one would mistake this young man who has taken the helm of the Studio Theatre as a “wild child,” a Rimbaud on the rampage, scary, impudent, a feral genius in a state of artistic nature.

For with David Muse, who became at age 36 Studio’s second artistic director when founder Joy Zinoman passed him the reins last September, the clearest impression is of a young man with artistic time and motion studies on his mind, with a bookkeeper’s talent for cutting costs or adding a new line to the budget — either way, it’s the temperament of a manager.

But that would be the wrong impression also.

The best explanation about what makes David Muse run — as an artist himself, Yale-educated twice over, as well as the new manager of Studio Theatre — may come from Zinoman, who says, “David’s story is the classic, American story of a smart, talented kid from a small town who finds his passion, pursues it with dedication and intensity, and manages to win friends and admirers by virtue of his charm, sensitivity and intelligence.”

She has also said of the preternaturally calm and highly cerebral Muse, a vegan, a cyclist and a fitness buff, that “he’s very seductive and charming,” and Susan Butler, Studio’s board chairman, told the Washington Post that “I hope he likes to raise money.” That’s a handy charm in that rarefied realm of courting wealthy patrons, coaxing those birds from their tall trees and out of their mansions, just another talent for Muse to demonstrate.

Muse must use persuasion to find new patrons just as he has also found old patrons, key sponsors like Zinoman of course but also Michael Kahn at the Shakespeare Theatre Company who plucked Muse from New York City to return to Washington in 2004 to become his artistic aide-de-camp. His talent is in having talent and in inspiring others more senior also with talent to appreciate and invest in his own talent. Which is sizable.

Consider that he has amassed a glittering resume as a director — including staging an all-male version of “Romeo and Juliet” — since arriving in D.C. in 1996 to teach calculus to kids at Eastern High School, when he was soon drawn to theater at Studio’s own acting conservatory, where first he was a student and then began to dabble part-time as a “juvenile,” the theatrical term for a male newcomer, enchanted by the stage, focusing on acting at the beginning, one time even dressing as an ostrich in size-13 high heels. He later tackled directing also.

Today he is filling even bigger shoes, succeeding the trail-blazing Zinoman in command of about 60 staff in four stages seating 900 in three buildings with about 60,000 square feet set in the heart of D.C.’s Logan Circle neighborhood, anchoring in a former auto showroom at 14th and P Streets. With its more than $5 million annual budget, Studio is a major force on the local theater scene, mounting major productions every year and with its new and impressive 2011-2012 season just announced. And of course he is also in charge, with Joy Zinoman still as its lead faculty member, of the Studio Theatre Acting Company, where his serious career in theater began.

Born in Appleton, Wis., he spent most of his childhood in Fulton, Mo., a small town (11,000). In high school he threw himself into theater and graduated valedictorian. In 1992 he left Fulton, the first student from his high school to attend an Ivy League school, for New Haven and Yale University where he studied ethics, politics and economics. Upon graduation, Muse joined Teach for America and headed for D.C., teaching math and also leading Outward Bound wilderness programs for troubled youths during the summer. But he also found his way to Studio’s acting school, to hone his passion for drama, and in 2000 he returned to Yale, this time to its drama school, to earn a master’s in directing.

Next he moved to New York City, but then he soon came back to D.C. when summoned by Kahn to become his second in command as associate artistic director at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, where he helped grow the company from its single theater at the Lansburgh with the addition of the new Harman Hall. He also was primary liaison for all the talent. He also began to direct plays at Studio’s smaller and edgier 2nd Stage.

The next year, 2006, also at Studio, he directed Bryony Lavery’s critically lauded “Frozen.” Then, last year, while also directing an electrifying version of Neil LaBute’s “Reasons To Be Pretty” there, he also threw his hat into the ring to replace Zinoman. After a scrupulous nationwide search lasting a year, he pulled that rabbit from out of that hat, emerging from half a dozen finalists to step into her shoes there officially last September.

Asked about his artistic vision, he demures at first, saying that he finds it “challenging to say the least” to define such an overview “when the work here is so purposefully eclectic, with so broad a range of theatrical offerings.” He also offers what he calls “another disclaimer” to having any “broad vision,” in that “you need to leave room,” he insists, for the thespian Holy Spirit, “for what feels right, this year, or at any other moment.”

Besides, Muse says, Studio “is not a place that needed someone to come in, to save or reinvent it.” But that said, he has even so his own vision of course, which is why in addition to his managerial mindset he was chosen for this job.

“The challenge,” he says, is “to balance all the historic strengths of this place with some new energy, and that’s what I aim to do.”

Those strengths, he says, include that it stages what he rightly boasts are “plays of real literary and theatrical merit.” He intends, he says, to build on that Studio strong deck of cards by pulling out some new ones — by “going in a little less familiar direction,” in part by bringing in more international productions but especially by “working with living writers, and working with them on the creation of new work,” not generally seen as a strong card at Studio in the past.

“We want to welcome these writers into the building as active collaborators,” he says, pointing to two world premieres slated for Studio in its just-announced 2011-2012 season.

This year, meanwhile, has included a season of superb performances in productions like the gay-themed “Marcus; or the Science of Sweet” (though Muse is straight and has a girlfriend), a season that has been the result of his collaboration with Zinoman, which will also later feature Anna K. Jacob’s “Pop!” a new musical about Andy Warhol.   Muses also draws attention to “The History of Kisses,” set for this summer as an example of collaboration with its author, David Cale, someone Muse calls “an electrifying solo performer, returning to D.C. after a long history here, but having been away for about 10 years.”

But it is with next year’s slate of 11 offerings that Muse lets his own muse come to the fore. First out of the gate, Sept. 7-Oct. 16, comes a new play in its U.S. premiere, directed by Muse, “The Habit of Art,” by Alan Bennett, the English author of “The History Boys,” whose career began decades ago as a member of the Oxford-Cambridge troupe of performers, “Beyond The Fringe.”

Starring the great D.C. actor Ted van Griethuysen as the gay poet W.H. Auden, it is set deep in the bowels of London’s National Theatre as rehearsals for a new play go on and the famed composer Benjamin Britten, also gay, and Auden’s former lover, now troubled at work on a new opera, seeks out the poet after a 25-year separation, to collaborate again, this time artistically. Between visits by Auden’s rent-boy and a biographer — briefly mistaken for the rent-boy — these two aging artists must wrestle with long-buried desire and current jealousy and seek to understand all the reasons their erstwhile friendship fell apart.

Called both wistful and “filthily funny,” the play is what Muse calls “an imaginary meeting” between the two great artists, when after a quarter century Auden comes to talk about collaborating again, but the rent-boy keeps returning” as the play progresses.

David Muse (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Looking to the new season, Muse also points to two world premieres — one in the Lab Series Sept. 28-Oct. 16 — “Lungs,” by Duncan Macmillan,” the chamber drama of a couple trying to face their future in a time of global anxiety over terrorism and erratic weather. The other world premiere comes next February and March in Studio’s 2nd Stage, in a new play, “Astro Boy and the God of Comics,” by Georgetown University theater professor Natsu Onoda Power, who also directs.

Muse says she has been invited to come to Studio “to conceive of this new play” there. It takes on Japanese Manga in a highly visual performance that he calls “a retro and sci-fi, multi-media extravaganza” about the 1960s animation series “Astro Boy,” a crime-fighting boy robot, and the life of his creator Osamu Tezuka.

Another play, set for November-December, is written and performed by former “Daily Show” correspondent Lauren Weedman, who has been called “a female Robin Williams.” This one-woman show, “Bust” is based on her experiences working as a volunteer advocate in a Southern California prison for women. In her solo performance she plays dozens of characters, switching from prostitute to parole officer, addict to editor with what Muse calls “nuance and empathy.”

Other plays will also startle and stir audiences, he predicts, including “The Golden Dragon” by German playwright Roland Schimmelpfennig, in its U.S. premiere in November-December. Called both “poetic” and “brutal,” it is set in the cramped kitchen of an Asian restaurant where four cooks pull the tooth of a Chinese co-worker. His tooth ends up in the Thai soup of a flight attendant, and that’s just the beginning of unexpected linkages connected to the young Chinese man sans tooth. Muse calls it “fierce and vicious” but also “a kaleidoscopic look at a globalized world,” where five actors “cross age, race and gender” to play 15 characters showing “how intertwined our lives really are.”

Also certain to draw attention, Muse predicts, will be another of the 2nd Stage productions, coming in the summer of 2012, “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,” by Alex Timbers, with music and lyrics by Michael Friedman.

“American history has never been this sexy,” Muse says, “in this rowdy and irreverent musical,” a scathing satire that re-imagines President Andrew “Old Hickory” Jackson as a rock star.

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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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