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At home with Albee

Genius dramatist’s ‘Zoo’ an intense treat

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‘At Home at the Zoo’
Through April 24
Arena Stage
1101 Sixth Street, S.W.
$85
202-488-3300
arenastage.org

James McMenamin (left) as Jerry and Jeff Allin as Peter in 'At Home at the Zoo,' an Edward Albee play being produced now at Arena Stage. (Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Arena)

For Peter, the mild-mannered New York textbook publisher sprung from the fertile mind of gay playwright Edward Albee, invitations to talk invariably spell trouble.

A mixture of old and new, Albee’s “At Home at the Zoo” is currently making its D.C.-area premiere at Arena Stage. The second act is the playwright’s 1959 career-making “The Zoo Story,” an intense one act in which Peter tragically accepts a gabby transient’s insistent offer to chat. And in the first act — a more recently written, calmer prequel titled “Home Life” (2004) — Peter reluctantly enters into a tough but revelatory conversation with wife Ann that he’d rather have avoided. Together, the players offer ample reason why typically reserved Peter is better off not talking.

Set in the affluent couple’s tasteful Manhattan apartment (subtly suggested by set designer James Noone), the action begins with Ann interrupting Peter who is immersed in a weighty, work-related tome.

“We should talk,” she suggests. After initial resistance, he follows her lead and a conversation unlike any they’ve ever had ensues. In no time, these comfortably married WASPs (believably played by Colleen Delany and Jeff Allin) with two daughters, two cats and two parakeets delve into a wide-ranging discussion that includes hacking off healthy breasts, circumcision (male and female), and anal sex (of the heterosexual variety). Before ending the exchange and returning to the quietly defined parameters of their everyday life, Ann gently informs Peter that despite his best efforts, he is unable to love and satisfy her in the ways that she needs.

After intermission, Peter escapes to his usual refuge — a welcoming bench in nearby Central Park where he predictably buries himself in yet another book. Soon after, he’s approached by Jerry, a hard-to-pigeonhole transient eager to talk, played by the excellent James McMenamin. For the most part, seated Peter serves as an audience to Jerry who paces back and forth, playfully deriding his new acquaintance’s safe, economically secure lifestyle. In fact, McMenamin mounts a bench to deliver his character’s famous story about the dog (a lengthy monologue describing Jerry’s prolonged contretemps with his repulsive boarding house manager’s foul canine). Things end badly between Peter and the increasingly menacing Jerry.

Full of animal imagery, the familiar second act violently explores feelings of alienation and loneliness. With its spare, witty dialogue, “Home Life” tackles the same themes but in a quieter, more domestic way. For “At Home at the Zoo,” Albee updates “The Zoo Story,” which doesn’t always work. For instance, today it’s not so likely that a professional type might take time to connect with a disheveled guy who appears to be off his meds. Complaints aside, both acts work well and certainly uphold Albee’s notion that the function of the arts is “to make us rethink that which we believe we believe.”

Staged by Mary B. Robinson, the production is part of Arena’s Edward Albee festival. Also included in the two-month long celebration is a fine production of the playwright’s boozy, battle-filled masterpiece “Who’s Afraid of Virginian Woolf?” (closes on April 10) as well as 26 staged readings of other Albee works.

“At Home at the Zoo” nicely encapsulates the 83-year-old playwright’s bravura skills — then and now — in two deliberately paced hours. Just prior to the show, a message recorded by Albee himself advises theatergoers to turn off their cell phones and refrain from texting during the performance, such a charming touch, particularly for an Albee festival. It’s not everyday a genius dramatist not only entertains you, but also dispenses a few theater etiquette tips.

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Theater

Jessica Phillips shines in ‘Penelope,’ a ‘pandemic parable’

Alex Bechtel was inspired to write about loneliness, waiting, separation

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Jessica Phillips in ‘Penelope’ at Signature Theatre. (Photo by Daniel Rader)

‘Penelope’
Thorough April 28
Signature Theatre, the Ark
4200 Campbell Ave, Arlington 
$40-$99
Sigtheatre.org

In the new musical “Penelope,” Broadway’s Jessica Phillips gives an unforgettable take on the title role torn from the pages of Homer’s “Odyssey” — more or less. Fortified by bourbon and backed by a Greek chorus of musicians, the character uncharacteristically steps out from the background to share her story surrounding two decades waiting on the island kingdom of Ithica for the return of her absent husband Odysseus. 

Sometimes described as a “pandemic parable,” the 70-minute work is based on composer/playwright Alex Bechtel’s personal experience. While separated from his partner during COVID, he was inspired to write about loneliness, waiting, and separation, a subject Phillips was eager to tackle. 

An accomplished Broadway actor and mother of two, Phillips, 52, is best known for memorable turns in “Dear Evan Hansen,” “The Scarlet Pimpernel,” “Next to Normal,” and “Priscilla Queen of the Desert.” 

Two years ago, she made news for coming out as queer after having long been identified as straight. Parts of the theater scene were caught a bit off guard, but only momentarily. Now, she lives in New York with her partner Chelsea Nachman, a theatrical publicist.“We share the same professional community but in very different roles. I think that makes life easier for us.” 

Currently enjoying an extended run at Signature in Arlington where the trees are in bloom, she spares time for a phone interview, starting off with“Perfect timing. I’ve just finished the last song on Beyonce’s ‘Cowboy Carter.’ Let’s talk.”

WASHINGTON BLADE: Increasingly, I hear artists report having been deeply changed by the pandemic. Did that have anything to do with your coming out in 2022?

PHILLIPS: Definitely. During the pandemic, those of us in the arts were in deep crisis, because our industry had collapsed in almost every way. At the same time, that space allowed us to be contemplative about where we were. For me, that period of time gave me the space to both come to terms with and confront those fears about saying who I was, out loud and publicly. 

BLADE: Did you have professional concerns?

PHILLIPS: Oh yeah, I was specifically worried about perception. Not so much about being queer but more what it meant to have come out relatively late in life. I had some fear around whether people would take me less seriously. 

At the same time, I was nervous about being fully transparent and worried about my privacy and being vulnerable. Like other women I knew, I was more comfortable dealing with traditional societal expectations in America. I grew up with those cultural expectations and thought of myself in those terms for a long time. 

BLADE: What changed? 

PHILLIPS: What’s been so freeing for me, I can confront how I took on those expectations and say I’m not going to let those determine how I live my life. I get to decide.

BLADE: There’s a lot of wonderful storytelling in “Penelope.” What’s been your way into that? 

PHILLIPS: My way of moving through the show is allowing this character to experience all five stages of grief. Humor, slapstick comedy, bargaining, denial. And ultimately acceptance and deep grief. 

When an audience is alive and invested, it’s palpable and elevates the storytelling. When an audience is having a thinking rather feeling experience that changes the tone of my storytelling and not in a bad way. 

It’s interesting how much they’re a part of everything. It’s really intimate. The audience is just six feet away. It’s a unique experience and we’re on this ride together. And I find this to be a really beautiful and satisfying experience that I’ve not had before.

BLADE: After Signature, what’s next for “Penelope”? 

PHILLIPS: That’s the million-dollar question. Hopefully we’ll take it forward to New York or tour it, but that requires willingness and money. I do think there’s a broad audience for this. It’s beautiful, unique, artistic, really emotional, and at the same time possesses an intellectual quality that’s missing from a lot of commercial theater these days.

BLADE: And what’s next for theater?

Phillips: I think one good thing that came out of the pandemic is that people like Alex Bechtel had an opportunity to create. In the next decade we’re going to see the results of that. I think we have some extraordinary things to look forward to. If a work like “Penelope” is any indication, we’re all in for something really good. 

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Theater

‘Nancy,’ soaked in ‘80s nostalgia, is ‘queer AF’

Mosaic production led by out director Ken-Matt Martin

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Ken-Matt Martin (Photo courtesy Martin)

‘Nancy’ 
Through April 21
Mosaic Theater Company at Atlas Performing Arts Center
1333 H St., N.E.
$53-$70
Mosaictheater.org

Set in 1985, smack dab in the middle of the Reagan years, Rhiana Yazzie’s “Nancy” is totally soaked in nostalgia: shoulder pads, high hair, Van Halen, etc. For some theatergoers, it jogs the memory and for others serves as an introduction to an alien era.

Out director Ken-Matt Martin describes the production (now at Mosaic Theater) as “queer AF.” He continues, “But that’s true with everything I touch. My aesthetics and interests are unapologetically queer. When you first walk into theater, you see a big ass picture of Nancy’s face. The whole play is kind of set on her face.”

Martin, who puts his age as “somewhere over 30,” gives a brief rundown via telephone: “‘Nancy’ places two women on parallel tracks and we get to watch them on a collision course. Esmeralda [Anaseini Katoa], a Navajo mother and advocate determined to improve the condition of her family and reservation. Her story is juxtaposed to that of Nancy Reagan [Lynn Hawley] who’s busy at the White House consulting with society astrologer Joan Quigley to help guide Reagan [Michael Kevin Darnall] and his administration. The women’s worlds come together over Nancy’s direct ancestral connection to Pocahontas.” 

The busy storyline also includes a moment surrounding Rock Hudson’s final days, a moment when well-coiffed, clothes-crazy Nancy was presented with the opportunity to make a difference but chose not to. 

“And the work doesn’t let Nancy off the hook,” adds Martin. “It’s a full meal of a play.”

Produced in partnership with New Native Theatre based in the Twin Cities, Mosaic’s epic offering, a very D.C. play about ancestry and ambition, almost looks at Ron and Nancy as cartoon characters but isn’t without empathy.  

Martin and Yazzie both love satire and absurdity; they enjoy comedy and things that are funny until they’re not. So, the evening shifts in tone as it moves into more serious areas, particularly an exploration of how the ‘80s and Reagan’s failed trickle-down agenda set the stage for many of today’s problems.  

The director’s way into theater was as a child actor. After successfully begging his mother to drive him from their native Little Rock, Ark., to a regional Atlanta audition, he booked an appearance on Nickelodeon’s landmark series “All That” and snagged an agent in the process. He continued to act for a time before becoming interested in other facets of showbiz. 

After graduating with an MFA in directing from Brown University/Trinity Repertory Company, Martin embarked on a terrifically busy schedule. In addition to freelance directing, he has helmed and helms various prestigious companies as artistic director and managing producer (Pyramid Theatre Company in Des Moines, IA, Victory Gardens Theater in Chicago, and was recently appointed Interim Artistic Director of Baltimore Center Stage and Arkansas Repertory Theatre.)

Currently an itinerant professional (Martin gave up his place in Chicago and hops from job to job where they house him), he says, “It can get a little old, but overall, not bad at all.” 

Next up, Martin is directing Olney Theatre’s production “Long Way Down,” the adaptation of a Young Adult novel by DMV native Jason Reynolds. “It’s a big regional tryout that after a limited engagement in Olney leaves for the Apollo Theatre in New York. I’m excited.” 

Martin is at home with plays that are tricky to stage, making him a good fit for “Nancy” with its multiple locations, scope, and scale. He’s enjoyed the challenge of the work’s collapsing time lines and the playwright’s tough, complicated, smart, and fast-moving language. 

“Perhaps most importantly,” he adds. “Rhiana has entrusted me with the opportunity to tell this very unique story, a story that can resonate with Native people and Native audiences. This part is very new to me as a director.”

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Theater

Talented pair of local queer actors tackles ‘Little Shop of Horrors’

Ford’s production features terrific score

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Chani Wereley (Audrey) and Derrick D. Truby Jr. (Seymour) in the 2024 Ford’s Theatre production of Little Shop of Horrors. (Photo by Scott Suchman)

‘Little Shop of Horrors’ 
Through May 18
Ford’s Theatre
511 10th St., N.W.
$33-$95
Fords.org 

Ever since premiering off-Broadway in 1982, “Little Shop of Horrors” has drawn a devoted following of avid audiences as well as performers eager to act in the show. Now playing at Ford’s Theatre, the doo-wop, dark comedy features a terrific cast including a wildly talented pair of local queer actors who’ve longed to appear in the show since they were kids. 

Set in the urban 1960s, Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s hit show with a terrific score follows the wacky rise of Seymour, a nebbishy florist in a Skid Row shop who changes his fortunes by unintentionally marketing an exotic, human eating plant.  

Chani Wereley, 28, who plays Seymour’s love interest Audrey, a hyper femme downtowner with an edge, has had her on eye the role for years. Wereley says, “Audrey’s been around the block more than once, but I approach her as a person who moves through the world with love and hope.”

The queer D.C. native adds, “On long trips to visit family in Canada or Florida, the first thing we’d do is pop a ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ video [film version] into the car’s VHS player. I’ve watched is so many times, I could quote the whole movie to you.”

After auditioning to play Audrey in director Kevin S. McAllister’s production at Ford’s, Wereley never thought she’d book the part, and when they said she got it, she cried.  

Similarly, Tobias A. Young, 34, the pansexual actor who voices the part of the bloodthirsty plant affectionately dubbed Audrey II, explains his intense interest in the work: “I started watching the film in ’86. Growing up as a little gay boy in Calvert County, Md., I wanted to be blonde Audrey [played by Ellen Green in the movie]. I didn’t know much about musicals at the time, but I was absorbed.” 

When asked by Ford’s to play the voracious plant Audrey II without auditioning, his reply was an unhesitant “yes.” 

Voicing a role requires Young to sing from backstage in a black box rigged with monitors and a mixing board. He says, “people ask if I’m singing from inside of the ever-growing, scary plant. No, I’m not, and that’s fine. But let’s face it, actors love to be seen on stage, but I don’t feel entirely unseen as Audrey II.”

He’s worked hard and successfully with formidable puppeteers Ryan Sellers and Jay Frisby to bring parts of himself to the carnivorous plant — his sassiness, own movements, and even a tilt of his head; their efforts have drawn the actual Young into the show. 

Both Wereley and Young possess gorgeous, emotive voices as evidenced by Wereley’s striking rendition of Audrey’s “Suddenly Seymour,” and Young’s soulful “Feed Me (Git It).” Additionally, both actors are also big on queer representation in theater. 

When her young pals were listening to Britney Spears, Wereley was dancing to retro tunes like “Mashed Potato Time,” and her favorite song to this day, the Shirelle’s girl group anthem “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow.” As Audrey, Wereley eschews the character’s usual platinum hair for a bouncy brunette, cherry-streaked wig, tight pencil skirts, swing coats, and her very own half-sleeve tattoo. 

“It’s important for people to see themselves on stage,” she says. “Seeing me or someone like me is inherently interesting. Being that person on Instagram or with the institution, cast, or audiences is meaningful. It’s important.”

In 2011, a couple years after finishing high school, Young landed a part in “Dream Girls” at Toby’s Dinner Theatre, and he’s been working professionally ever since. Growing up, he didn’t see a lot of himself – Black and queer – on social media. He now wants to be open and honest for those out there who might not feel seen, he says

An introvert who lets everything loose on the stage, Young says, “theater is a safe space for queer people. That’s the first place we feel safe, particularly in school. And this is why we need theaters in schools, now more than ever.”

He adds, “What’s great about Ford’s is its surprises, especially when they switch up casting. It’s meaningful to see the shows you love, but why not see them with a twist? Using unexpected actors and incorporating queer people just makes it that much better.”

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