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Spoofing convention

Two Virginia productions lampoon clichés with clever, funny results

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‘The Real Inspector Hound’
by Tom Stoppard
Through May 29
8 p.m. Thursday-Friday
5 and 8 pm. Saturday
3 and 7 p.m. Sunday
Metro Stage
1201 N. Royal Street
Alexandria, VA
Tickets $45-$50
(students $25)
at 800-494-8497
or visit boxofficetickets.com

‘[title of show]’
music and lyrics by Jeff Bowen
book by Hunter Bell
Through May 14
8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday
3 p.m. Sunday
The Little Theatre of Alexandria
600 Wolfe Street
Alexandria, VA
Tickets $19-$22
at box office
or 703-683-0496
or visit thelittletheatre.com

From left, Sharon Grant (Heidi), Anne Marie Pinto (Susan), Josh Goldman (Hunter), Scott Harrison (Jeff), and Francine Krasowska (Pianist) in ‘Title of Show.’ (Photo by Shane Canfield; courtesy of Little Theatre of Alexandria)

A mysterious stranger, a murderer on the loose, bodies piling up at a remote manor house, the suspicion that one of the weekend guests must surely be the killer, the entrance of the savvy detective — Agatha Christie conventions ripe for the parody playwright Tom Stoppard brings to them in “The Real Inspector Hound.”

The early ‘60s-era play is on the boards now at Metro Stage in Old Town Alexandria through May 29. It’s a true giggle and so skillfully helmed by veteran director John Vreeke that it will keep you tingling on the edge of your seat in the intimate setting of Metro Stage, which has brought together three of the stars of an earlier play, “Heroes,” translated from the French original by Stoppard and staged there several years ago, where they won that year’s Helen Hayes Award for outstanding ensemble in a resident production.

Vreeke, a four-time best director Helen Hayes Awards nominee, directed that play also, which starred the same trio that, reunited here, glitters with bright wit as the conveyors of Stoppard’s ideas about police procedurals in murder mysteries, in “The Real Inspector Hound,” where nothing that is apparent is real and even the fourth wall of the stage, absent as the play opens, entirely dissolves half way through when all boundaries between actors and audience are broken into pieces.

In this play we immediately meet two theater critics sitting in other seats but facing us: Moon (Ralph Cosham) and Birdboot (Michael Tolaydo), the former afflicted with a huge inferiority complex as the second-string reviewer from his paper, and the latter a philanderer cheating on his wife with every ingenue he can bed after he gives her a swooning review.

Another actor is already on stage, but he is already dead, the corpse that, of course, never speaks but whose constant presence is somehow ignored by the actors in the play the two critics have come to review, a cast that includes the mysterious Major Magnus Muldoon — the crippled half-brother of the Lady of the Manor, glamorous vixen, Lady Cynthia Muldoon ((Emily Townley) — played by the third of the “Heroes” trio (John Dow).

Before long there are more corpses than just one on stage and Moon and Birdboot have gotten — literally, and fatally — into the act.

This same device of a play-within-a-play is also on stage across town in Old Town Alexandria at the Little Theatre of Alexandria, in the clever spoof of how to “put on a show.”

It’s about two would-be hit-makers who are actually “nobodies in New York” trying to write a musical, and the result is their musical about two guys trying to write a musical. Their 2006 one-act musical comedy, a hit Off-Broadway, Obie-winning there — “[title of show]” — moved briefly to Broadway in 2008 and has also spawned a national tour now under way and recent productions at Signature Theatre in Arlington and now at Little Theatre, a community theater with a professional skill set.

It’s called “[title of show]” because the two — real-life Jeff Bowen (music and lyrics) and Hunter Bell (book) — couldn’t think of another title when they were submitting a script with a few songs to win success in the New York Musical Theatre Festival in 2004. Bowen and Bell, both gay, also played themselves in the show in its several incarnations including in the national tour that is set to close in July in California and then move to London’s West End later this year.

On stage at Little Theatre, there are only four characters: Bowen (here played ably by Scott Harrison, lawyer by day) and Bell (Josh Goldman, a graduate last year of the College of William and Mary, where for three years he performed with the college’s improv theatre team), and also their two real-life (at the time) best friends (not beards or girlfriends), Heidi (Sharon Grant) and Susan (Anne Marie Pinto).

All four perform superbly with great voices and comic sensibilities brought to a perfect storm of their four distinctive humors by director Michael Kharfen, first time at the helm of a Little Theatre play but previously seen there on stage in “Sleuth.”

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Theater

‘Blindness’ explores a terrifying new pandemic

Sidney Harman Hall production features immersive sound, light installation

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The audience takes the stage in ‘Blindness.’ (Photo by Helen Maybanks)

‘Blindness’
Through June 13
Shakespeare Theatre Company
Sidney Harman Hall
610 F St., N.W.
$44-54
Shakespearetheatre.org

Masks and social distancing, yes, but I never expected a return to live theater to include a stage without actors and an audience seated onstage. But that’s exactly how it went it down on a recent sunny Saturday morning in Washington.

We longed for something, and after a year of indisputably warranted darkness, the Shakespeare Theatre Company (STC) has obliged by reopening Sidney Harman Hall with Donmar Warehouse’s terrifyingly enthralling production of “Blindness,” an immersive sound and light installation anchored by Juliet Stevenson’s astonishing recorded vocal performance heard — jarringly, soothingly, eerily — through binaural headphones.

Adapted by Simon Stephens from Nobel Prize winner José Saramago’s same-titled dystopian novel, and staged by Walter Meierjohann (“The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time”), the London born, 75-minute tale begins with narrator Stevens matter-of-factly relaying the details surrounding the outbreak of a pandemic that causes blindness. What starts off as an alarming, isolated incident, rapidly devolves into something all-encompassing and petrifying.

Uncannily, Saramago’s 1995 book, both looks back to plague stories and prophetically toward COVID-19.
In addition to narrator, Stevenson (an Olivier Award-winning stage actor also known for films like “Truly, Madly, Deeply”) plays the wife of an ophthalmologist whose office is where patient zero spreads the disease to various other patients – a little cross-eyed boy, an alluring young woman hiding a case of conjunctivitis behind dark sunglasses, a thief, an older gent sporting an eye patch, and sundry others.

The doctor’s wife, who is immune to the new sight-stealing disease, is doomed/blessed to become the lone eyewitness to violence, injustices, and death as the situation becomes progressively scary, primitive, and dangerous.

Rather than darkness, the afflicted are submerged into a world of milky whiteness. The pandemic – a new pathogen whose means of transmission is unknown – moves quickly throughout the city, then the nation, and beyond. Early in the outbreak, the health ministry is reluctant to get too involved, choosing instead to minimize the seriousness of what’s happening. Sounds familiar, I know.

Like the story, Jessica Hung Han Yun’s lighting design becomes increasingly menacing as things move along. Originally playfully colorful fluorescent tubes suspended high from the ceiling, they turn stark white and are lowered to audience members’ line of sight. Then they are darkened altogether, interrupted by occasional bright colorless flashes.

Through headphones, the audience hears rain storms, harsh announcements, barricades being dragged, screams, sobs, footsteps, and gunshots. At times, Stevenson whispers in your ear. Once, I mechanically answered “Yes, I’m here.”

Masked, seated often in total darkness, headphones, it’s immersive, sometimes claustrophobically so. (If it becomes too much, there’s a flash light attached to the leg of each metal chair. Turn it on and an usher will escort you off the stage.)

During the pandemic STC has developed health and safety measures that include masks, air filtration, social distancing, etc.

For “Blindness” only 40 patrons are allowed per viewing. No one is seated next to someone outside of their own party, and a limited number of single tickets are available for purchase by calling the box office. Headsets, seats, and flashlights are disinfected before every performance, and all bathrooms and lobby spaces will be cleaned prior to the next seating group enters the building.

Exiting the Harman, you might think how odd it is to have been on stage before the actors’ union has allowed them to perform indoors before a live audience.

Outdoors, the warm wind feels invigorating against your face as you walk down the street. Still, the nearby upscale Mexican restaurant’s windows remain boarded and the half dozen people around you are walking determinedly, all — except one — wearing a mask.

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Theater

Theater that starts uncomfortable conversations

Theater Alliance director on ‘City in Transition’ — 4 plays about D.C.’s quadrants

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Caldwell, gay news, Washington Blade

Raymond O. Caldwell is the producing artistic director of Theater Alliance.

‘City in Transition: The Quadrant Series’

Streaming from April 24-May 24

Theater Alliance

Theateralliance.com

Recently, a Facebook post asked “Are there any activist theaters in D.C.?” A local actor quickly replied. “There’s only one,” she wrote. “It’s Theater Alliance.”

During a phone interview from his home in Anacostia last week, Theater Alliance’s producing artistic director Raymond O. Caldwell, addressed the social media query: “We keep our heads down and do the work. Well before the pandemic, we were trying to have conversations about race in America. Then it seemed niche work. Now that work is in vogue. There might come a time when it’s no longer stylish. But that’s OK, we’re ultimately doing it to transform people’s lives and start conversations.

“Our plays won’t change the world. Straight up. But we can start conversations that are uncomfortable and don’t have easy answers. And by partnering our productions with various nonprofits, we’re able to involve people in the movement whether it’s on the front line or stuffing envelopes.”

In residence at Anacostia Playhouse, Theater Alliance’s mission is to illuminate the experiences, philosophies, and interests of D.C.’s diverse population. When Caldwell, who is gay, took helm of the company in January 2019, the organization was already steeped in diversity. He’s worked to continue and expand on that, creating a cultural institution that’s invited in the surrounding, mostly Black community.

The company kicked off its virtual season in December with eight pieces about protest centered around the demands of the Black Lives Matter movement. Having started off nationally, they’re now moving locally with “City in Transition: The Quadrant Series,” a 90-minute intersection of theater and film directed by Caldwell.

Part of the multi-Helen Hayes Award-winning company’s Hothouse new play development series, “City in Transition” consists of four filmed plays about Washington’s quadrants, SE, SW, NE, and NW written by local black playwrights Khadijah Z. Ali-Coleman, Avery Collins, Shalom Omo-Osagie, and Leslie Scott-Jones.

The not long pieces are set in the present, past, and future. Topics include Black nonprofits battling to get funding via a game show; the meeting of hip-hop artists and violence set against the gentrified waterfront; a wealthy Black family debating whether to transform its landmark Black property into a trendy lounge for whites; and a white census taker discussing the changing city and current protests with a Black Washington native.

“Almost 13 years ago, I came to D.C. to be in Chocolate City but to my surprise, it wasn’t here,” says Caldwell, 37.

“When I think about a city changing and moving through gentrification, what concerns me is the loss of history, the stories of the folks who once lived here disappear.

“And interestingly, as D.C. gentrifies, we start noticing an uptick of murals and Black aesthetic of the city. It allows liberal yuppies to feel they’re in an urban environment but forgetting the rich history particularly for Black people in DC.”
He initially came to Washington for a six-month fellowship but stayed on. After six years at

Arena Stage, desirous to work outside of a white space, he began teaching at Howard University.

At Howard, his work centered on the universality of storytelling. “I pitched what folks would consider white work like Lillian Hellman’s provocatively lesbian-themed play, ‘The Children’s Hour.’”

“I’d ask my predominantly Black audience to imagine ourselves there as well, and they would.

The audience left thinking the play was written by a Black woman. It was additionally powerful because we in the Black community have trouble talking about homosexuality.”

As gay, Black, and Asian, Caldwell sometimes refers to himself as third culture: “Being who I am allows more space for me to see biases. I go into work asking myself what are the opportunities for transformation within me and the ensemble of artists I’ll be working with?”

Born in Germany to a German-Filipino mother and African-American father, he mostly grew up in Germany but spent summers with his father in the U.S. At 13, he went to live with his father.

“He thought I’d had enough of the European experience and wanted to teach me what it was to be a Black man in the world. And interestingly, that became the center of my activism.”

Caldwell’s American grandmother described him like this: “That boy can’t help but livin’.”

It’s true, he keeps busy, says Caldwell. He doesn’t turn down too many projects. “I’m honored to be creating art. There are so many ideas I want to push and propagate and now having a space and platform makes it especially hard to say no. It’s a good place to be.”

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Theater

‘Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter’ a raucous, transgressive romance

GALA Hispanic Theatre debuts second live performance since COVID

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Aunt Julia, gay news, Washington Blade

Carlos Castillo (seated) and Delbis Cardona. (Photo by Daniel Martinez)

‘Tía Julia y el escribidor’ / ‘Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter’
In person April 22-May 9 ($45)
Online starting May 5 ($25)
GALA Hispanic Theatre
3333 14th St., NW
Galatheatre.org

When GALA Hispanic Theatre reopened its doors in the fall, the actors performed in a giant plexiglass box. And now, for the Columbia Heights company’s second live performance production, what looks like “a giant sneeze guard” separates the action on stage from the audience.

Opening next week, Caridad Svich’s eponymous adaptation of Nobel Prize-winning writer Mario Vargas Llosa’s autobiographical coming-of-age novel “Tía Julia y el escribidor, or “Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter,” is a raucously funny, transgressive yet tender romance.

A fun workplace story set against the radio-novela focused world of 1950s Lima, it’s the story of Mario, an aspiring young writer who embarks on an ardent affair with Julia, his alluring, older aunt by marriage.

The production’s out director José Zayas knows the story well.

He first encountered this peek into Vargas Llosa’s youth with “Tune in Tomorrow,” an Americanized 1990 screen adaptation (relocated to New Orleans) starring Keanu Reeves and Barbara Hershey. Smitten with the film, Zayas promptly sought out the source material: “It’s an especially autobiographical, genuine Latin American comedy. Truly a delightful work to encounter.”

When tapped to direct something for Repertorio Español’s 2015 season, Zayas requested that longtime collaborator Svich adapt “Tía Julia.” Both she and the esteemed New York theater agreed.

“We’re very simpatico,” he says. Zayas and Svich are equally adroit in Spanish and English, and together they share a passion for classic Hollywood screwball comedies like “The Frontpage,” “Twentieth Century,” and “His Girl Friday,” and their love for the genre is evident all over the play and production.

“It’s an especially unique adaptation with different influences coming into play,” says Zayas, a Harvard grad who was born in Puerto Rico, grew up in the U.S. Virgin Islands, and now lives in New York. “It’s one of the interesting things that happens when you adapt in the United States and you’re working in Spanish – the rhythms are different.

“And while there’s nothing explicitly LGBTQ about the play, besides me and some of the cast,” he adds, “it has a feel — the fascination with the comedies of the period — the strong women of the time like Rosalind Russell, the style, and form of it. It’s all there, maybe coded, but there.”

Already in rehearsal at GALA when COVID hit in March 2020, the presented in Spanish with English surtitles production was postponed until now. Resuming rehearsals after a long break means hearing the play in new voices, new ideas, new textures, and in some cases new cast members, says Zayas. Fortunately, out actor Carlos Castillo, a talented GALA vet, remains in the role of young Mario’s mentor, the exceedingly eccentric scriptwriter Pedro Camacho.

Zayas adds, “Before the show was cast, I immediately saw Carlos as Pedro. He’s biting into the part and loving it.”

Zayas also staged GALA’s reopening in October with “El Perro del Hortelano” (“The Dog in the Manger”), a classic Spanish comedy. Part of a pilot program, the show observed myriad safety protocols including masks, socially distanced seating, and a dramatically improved air filtration system. Zayas conferred with out set designer Clifton Chadick on a contained terrarium like set that addressed the concerns of COVID-19 while telling the story in a modern light.

For “Tía Julia,” safety measures are again in place (though now there will be 50 rather than 25 seats available per performance in the 364-seat house). Moreover, Zayas and Chadick are reunited. “This time,” Zayas says “there’s a giant sneeze guard between the stage and the house. In the context of the play, it feels like the audience is in the radio studio watching through glass. It makes sense. I think we came up with a fun way of doing it. “

Much of Zayas’ career has been making theater for Spanish speaking and Latinx audiences. “It’s tricky. While you want to get as broad a base as possible, I find it edifying to have these conversations with Spanish speakers. But I like to invite others to join in too. See, it’s a little complicated.”

“But ultimately, theater is about experience and connection. Being an adventurous theatergoer is really exciting. It makes you a better listener and a better person – you become more empathetic, attuned to language, and different behaviors. And this is one more connection.”

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