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Behind the ‘Curtain’

Gay-themed Signature production explores 19th century musical creation

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Alma Cuervo as Mme. Gimaud speaks on behalf of her French ballet troupe in 'And the Curtain Rises,' the current production at Signature Theatre in Arlington. It runs through April 10. (Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Signature)

Signature Theatre’s “And the Curtain Rises” is definitely a backstage story — and nothing reinforces this more than set designer Beowulf Boritt’s clever rendition of a 19th century Manhattan theater.

For much of the new musical comedy, we observe the action from a traditional perspective; but at other times, when the set’s back wall opens to reveal a sea of red plush seating and the actors look upstage toward an imagined audience, suddenly we’re sharing their point of view. It’s a marvelous bit of stage magic that ups the immediacy of the experience.

A tribute to the American musical, “Curtain” revisits one of the first times music, words and dance came together on a New York City stage — the making of “The Black Crook,” an actual 1866 extravaganza that enjoyed a long run at Niblo’s Garden Theatre and toured the country for decades afterward. This groundbreaking musical prototype resulted after a French ballet troupe (stranded after the theater where they were booked burnt to the ground) joined forces with a cast of dramatic American actors and came up with something entirely new.

But as “Curtain’s” creators — composer Joseph Thalken, librettist Michael Slade and lyricist Mark Campbell (all of whom are gay, by the way) — relay in the program notes, while the trio has researched this post Civil War theater moment, they have totally re-imagined it in their own way, allowing them not only to focus on collaboration and community, but also to contrive a backstage tale riddled with duplicity, sex, love and rivalry.

Staged by New York-based director Kristen Hangii, the action kicks off auspiciously with Niblo’s cigar-chomping stage manager Timoney (William Diggle) casually lighting the stage’s gas footlights as he takes us back to a time before “wristwatches and electric lights” when today’s idea of a musical didn’t exist. Soon after however, things devolve, at least temporarily. The first act with its plodding storyline — novice director/producer William Wheatley (Nick Dalton) struggles to please both a disdainful playwright Charles Barras (Sean Thompson) and some unhappy actors while trying to turn a bad melodrama into a certain hit — is essentially a drawn-out set up for the musical innovation that takes place later in the show. It can be tiresome.

After intermission, things improve significantly: There’s a rousing can-can number (quite the scandal in the 1860s) and a budding same-sex romance between the company’s veteran actor played by the excellent Erick Devine, who is gay, and the ballet troupe’s talented Hungarian accompanist (Brian Sutherland); as well as  memorable music including “Stay,” William’s balladic plea to his production’s leading lady, Millicent Cavendish (Rebecca Watson), an aging ingénue with whom he’s falling in love. Overall, the pacing quickens considerably and the jokes are less stale.

“Curtain” was especially commissioned by Signature as part of its American Musical Voices Project. As such the work benefits from the Tony Award-winning company’s full treatment: Boritt’s clever set is beautifully lit by Colin Bills. Kathleen Geldard’s post- Civil War period costumes are impeccable — from the men’s fine jackets and ladies’ hoop skirt dresses to the ballerinas’ pretty, Degas-inspired dance gear.

Mostly young but peppered with a few more seasoned performers (like the excellent Alma Cuervo as a resourceful ballet mistress), the energetic ensemble cast is terrific and in very good voice, particularly Dalton and Watson as William and Millicent. Thalken’s melodic score (superbly executed by a small orchestra conducted by Boko Suzuki) is contemporary for sure, but makes wonderful, sporadic reference to the waltz and the lively march, popular musical forms of the era.

Uneven but fun and well-produced, “Curtain” offers glimpses into the first days of American musical theater, onstage and off.

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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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‘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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