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Theatrical highs

Many stellar gay-helmed productions infused D.C. stage scene

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Delia Taylor as Winnie in WSC Avant Bard’s production of Samuel Beckett’s ‘Happy Days.’ (Photo by Dru Sefton; courtesy WSC)

It was a particularly good year for Washington theater. Included among the many solid offerings were numerous shows made by and about LGBT people.

Woolly Mammoth presented works by rising gay playwrights Robert O’Hara and Samuel D. Hunter. O’Hara’s autobiographical comedy “Bootycandy,” about growing up black and gay in America, follows the misadventures of young Sutter as he grapples with finding his place in the world and his own burgeoning sexuality. O’Hara — who also directed — led a terrific design team and got some great comedic performances from a talented five-person ensemble who portrayed a much larger number of characters ranging in age, portrayed many more characters ranging in age, sexual orientation and gender.

Hunter’s “A Bright New Boise” is a dark comedy set in the break room of a big box store in Idaho. Woolly’s production was staged by gay director John Vreeke and featured an finely drawn performance from gay actor Michael Russotto.

Leading dramatists were honored. In the spring, Arena Stage celebrated the work of Edward Albee with a festival featuring the gay playwright’s entire canon (mostly staged readings). The festival’s centerpiece were fully staged productions of Albee’s searing domestic drama “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” which starred Tracy Letts and Amy Morton as the boozy, battling spouses George and Martha; and Albee’s more recent work “At Home at the Zoo,” a riveting peek into the lives of three New Yorkers.

At the same time, the Georgetown University Theater and Performance Studies Program presented an equally ambitious celebration of another gay playwright’s stunning oeuvre: the Tennessee Williams Centennial Festival (Tenn Cent Fest for short).  Included in the extensive, multidisciplinary program was a production of “The Glass Menagerie” featuring Sarah Marshall, who is gay, as the former Southern belle matriarch Amanda Wingfield, who’s based on the playwright’s overbearing mother.

In May, the Kennedy Center presented “Follies” (gay composer Stephen Sondheim’s paean to ex-chorines and messy relationships) starring Bernadette Peters. Staged by local gay director Eric Schaeffer, it was a little uneven but boasted a sublime second act. Since its run here, an improved version of the same production moved on to Broadway and is slated for a limited Los Angeles run in the spring.

At Synetic Theater, gay actor Philip Fletcher continued to do amazing things with his body during 2011. A longtime regular with the movement-based theater group, Fletcher played Edmund in a stunning, punk rock “King Lear” in April, and in October he reprised his role as the most maniacal third of a triadic Iago in “Othello.”

At WSC Avant Bard in Rosslyn, director Jose Carrasquillo directed Delia Taylor (both gay) in a splendid production of Samuel Beckett’s daunting “Happy Days.” Tony Cisek — also gay — designed the set. In fact, Cisek designed sets for many productions throughout the year including Ford’s “Parade,” Folger’s “Othello” and “After the Fall” at Theatre J.

Other news from 2011: The Shakespeare Theatre Company’s gay artistic director Michael Kahn celebrated 25 years at the troupe’s helm; legendary (and lanky) Broadway choreographer Tommy Tune came to town to accept the Helen Hayes Tribute for an exceptionally successful career in theater; award-winning local actor Holly Twyford (who is gay) made an impressive directing debut at No Rules Theater Company with “Stop Kiss.” On a sadder note,Ganymede Arts, Washington’s only gay-specific theater closed, citing straightened finances as the main reason. The company was known for successfully staging works of special interest in LGBT audiences and for four years, it held fun fall arts festival, which attracted cool notables like Karen Black, Charles Busch and Holly Woodlawn.

For Helen Hayes Award-winning actor and DC theater scene veteran Rick Hammerly, 2011 was an especially busy and professionally fulfilling year.  In addition to acting in the Kennedy Center’s long-running “Shear Madness,” the Tenn Cent Festival’s “And Tell Sad Stories of the Deaths of Queens…,”and most recently as Mr. Fezziwig in “A Christmas Carol” at Ford’s Theatre, he also produced “Magnificent Waste” for Factory 449, a progressive theater company that he and a small group of other theater artists founded several years ago.

And in what Hammerly describes as the highlight of his year, he staged a timely production of “Dead Men Walking” at American University in the fall. The play was created for universities by Tim Robbins through his Dead Man Walking School Theatre Project. It closely follows Robbins’ 1995 award winning film adaptation of the book by Sister Helen Prejean, based on her time spent with Death Row inmates.

“The experience gave me the opportunity to introduce the students to the power of theater — what it can really accomplish if you’re tackling things that are current. We used the story of Troy Anthony Davis’ execution in the play to tie what’s taking place on stage to something that is actually happening in the world. It demonstrated the strength of art and theater.”

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Photos

PHOTOS: Black Pride Opening Reception

Billy Porter headlines program at start of weekend activities

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Billy Porter performs at the Opening Reception of DC Black Pride 2024. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

D.C. Black Pride 2024 began at The Westin Washington, DC Downtown with an Opening Reception on Friday, May 24. The “Rainbow Row” resource fair was held in conjunction with the reception and featured community organizations and other vendors’ booths.

The reception was hosted by Anthony Oakes. Earl Fowlkes, outgoing chief executive officer and president of the Center for Black Equity, was honored by a mayoral proclamation. Performers included Billy Porter, Paris Sashay, Keith Angelo, Bang Garcon, Black Assets, Marcy Smiles and Sherri Amoure.

(Washington Blade photos by Michael Key)

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Books

Architecture junkies will love new book on funeral homes

‘Preserved’ explores how death industry evolved after WWII

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(Book cover image courtesy of Johns Hopkins University Press)

‘Preserved: A Cultural History of the Funeral Home in America’
By Dean G. Lampros
c.2024, Johns Hopkins University Press 
$34.95/374 pages

Three bedrooms upstairs. That’s a minimum.

You need a big kitchen, a large back room would be a bonus, you want lots of bathrooms, and if you can get a corner lot, that’d be great. The thing you need most is a gigantic all-purpose room or maybe a ballroom because you’re planning on a lot of people. As you’ll see in the new book “Preserved” by Dean G. Lampros, not all living rooms are for the living.

Not too long ago, shortly after he took a class on historic preservation, Dean Lampros’ husband dragged him on a weekend away to explore a small town in Massachusetts. There, Lampros studied the town’s architecture and it “saddened” him to see Victorian mansions surrounded by commercial buildings. And then he had an epiphany: there was once a time when those old mansions housed funeral homes. Early twentieth-century owners of residential funeral homes were, in a way, he says, preservationists.

Prior to roughly World War II, most funerals were held at home or, if there was a need, at a funeral home, the majority of which were located in a downtown area. That changed in 1923 when a Massachusetts funeral home owner bought a large mansion in a residential area and made a “series of interior renovations” to the building. Within a few years, his idea of putting a funeral home inside a former home had spread across the country and thousands of “stately old mansions in aging residential neighborhoods” soon held death-industry businesses.

This, says, Lampros, often didn’t go over well with the neighbors, and that resulted in thousands of people upset and lawsuits filed. Some towns then passed ordinances to prohibit such a thing from happening to their citizens.

Still, funeral home owners persevered. Moving out of town helped “elevate” the trade, and it allowed Black funeral home operators to get a toehold in formerly white neighborhoods. And by having a nice – and nice-sized – facility, the operators were finally able to wrest the end-of-life process away from individuals and home-funerals.

Here’s a promise: “Preserved” is not gruesome or gore-for-the-sake-of-gore. It’s not going to keep you up all night or give you nightmares. Nope, while it might be a little stiff, it’s more of a look at architecture and history than anything else.

From California to New England, author Dean G. Lampros takes readers on a cruise through time and culture to show how “enterprising” business owners revolutionized a category and reached new customers for a once-in-a-deathtime event. Readers who’ve never considered this hidden-in-plain-sight, surprising subject – or, for that matter, the preservation or re-reclamation of those beautiful old homes – are in for a treat here. Despite that the book can lean toward the academic, a good explanatory timeline and information gleaned from historical archives and museums offer a liveliness that you’ll enjoy.

This book will delight fans of little-know history, and architecture junkies will drool over its many photographs. “Preserved” is the book you want because there are other ways to make a house a “home.”

The Blade may receive commissions from qualifying purchases made via this post.

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Theater

‘Evita’s Return’ offers different take on Argentinian icon

Posthumous look at mummified first lady’s travels is not fiction

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Fran Tapia (front) Back L-R Facundo Agustin, Luis Obed Velazquez, Tsaitami Duchicela (back) Oscar A.Rodriguez, Rodolfo Santamarina, and Sofia Grosso. ( Photo by Stan Weinstein)

“Momea en el Clóset (Mummy in the Closet): Evita’s Return”
Through June 9
GALA Hispanic Theatre
3333 14th St., N.W.
$50
Galatheatre.org

Whether alive or dead, Eva Perón wielded her own brand of political power. After her death in 1952, Eva’s cult of mostly poor and working-class followers remained devoted to their Santa Evita. Her husband, Argentina’s president Juan Perón, fostered adulation by having her wasted body painstakingly embalmed, and displaying the waxen corpse like the incorruptible bodies of sainted Roman Catholic luminaries. But when the anti-Peronistas took power, they had other ideas; storing her away far from sight seemed a better idea.

Typically works about Argentina’s first lady focus on her unbridled ambition and ascent from anonymity to fame, but the strikingly original “Momea en el Clóset (Mummy in the Closet): Evita’s Return” — now at GALA Hispanic Theatre — is different. The collaboration of GALA’s producing artistic director Gustavo Ott (book and lyrics) and Mariano Vales (music and lyrics) spotlights the events following Eva’s death from cervical cancer at just 33.  

At the center of this entertaining madness is winning out actor Fran Tapia as Eva, a corpse sporting a ball gown and the trademark platinum blonde chignon, standing stiffly in a closet, more a mobile cabinet actually. In death, she realizes a silent dignity with flashes of an unyielding passion for social justice. 

The Chilean award-winning Tapia possesses a stunningly emotive voice, quickly evidenced in the show’s first number “Evita, Evita,” when near death Eva bravely addresses the needy crowd whom she endearingly calls her descamisados (the very poor). Simultaneously, the smug anti-Peronists — bourgeoisie and military types — sing “cancer is homeland,” “cancer is love.” They relish the idea of her dying and are counting the minutes to her imminent demise. 

So, the scene is set. Eva’s shabby posthumous story unfolds – performed in Spanish with eloquent English surtitles. Sprinkled with humor and poignant bits, it’s a dramedy, reflective of then and today. 

Unlike Eva’s “Rainbow Tour” of 1947 when Argentina’s newly minted first lady was introduced to Europe with mixed results, her death journey is an obscure low-rent, outing. She finds herself in a Milanese cemetery with some particularly pesky souls, each who apparently strode the earth in different centuries (all cleverly costumed by Becca Janney). 

For a time, she lands with an increasingly cynical Perón (stentorian-voiced Martín Ruiz) in Spanish exile. With him are new wife Isabel (Camila Taleisnik), portrayed as a reluctant and inept replacement for Evita, and scheming political cum spiritual adviser López (Diego Mariani).

As crazy as it sounds, GALA’s current offering isn’t a work of fiction. At the top of the show, it’s made perfectly clear that any resemblance to the truth is factual. Director Mariano Caligaris’ inventive, fearless staging along with Valeria Cossnu’s exhilarating choreography, make for exciting storytelling. 

Music inspired by Latin rhythms of samba, reggae, bachata, tango, tarantella, and waltz (by way of Bavaria) is directed by Walter “Bobby” McCoy and performed live by a fabulous unseen seven-person orchestra. 

Grisele Gonzalez’s serviceable, multi-tiered set design affords the various prerequisite balconies and perches. An upstage scrim is perfect for the projections (Hailey Laroe) of grimy actual footage from Eva’s funeral and subsequent violent skirmishes involving fascists against the people. 

The cast is uniformly terrific. They sing, dance, and act with equal skill, and whether playing protesters, clerical staff, or handsome Argentinian soldiers, they look the part. Most are required to interact with the cadaver in differing ways from timidly to less than respectfully. 

Making his GALA debut, wonderfully able Rodrigo Pedreira shows off his versatility as Dr. Ara, the man tasked with making the dead woman presentable for public consumption, as well as a general whose butch exterior is belied by the occasional mincing walk and longing looks directed at his cute aide-de-camp (Luis Obed Velázquez).

As she travels, mummified Eva says “And once again the moving begins. They move me through offices, basements, garages. They cover me, package me, label me, and off I go traveling again! We come from fascism and toward fascism we go.”

Alive or dead, Eva was never able to successfully crack Buenos Aires’ famously tough high society, but she found fans elsewhere. 

Over about 14 years as a displaced dead body and beyond, Tapia’s Eva embodies the spirit of Argentina’s millions, the common people. They return the dedication: Candles are lit. Prayers are offered. Intercession is sought. Life goes on, but Eva isn’t easily forgotten.

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