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‘Heart’ of the matter

Gay-penned classic gets first-ever D.C.-area production

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Larry Kramer, The Normal Heart, HIV/AIDS, Arena Stage, gay news, Washington Blade

Patrick Breen, left, as Ned and Luke MacFarlane as Felix in ‘The Normal Heart’ at Arena Stage. (Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy Arena )

‘The Normal Heart’
Through July 29
Arena Stage
1101 6th Street, SW
$40-$94
202-488-3300
arenastage.org

Larry Kramer’s “The Normal Heart,” is aging well, breathtakingly so. This was proved last year on Broadway and it’s being demonstrated again with a powerfully searing production now playing at Arena Stage.

When Kramer’s biographical take on the early days of the AIDS crisis premiered in New York in 1985, gay men were dying in large numbers and then-President Reagan had yet to utter the word “AIDS” publicly, so not surprisingly the gay playwright’s words reportedly rang angry and alarmed. Today, Arena’s stripped-down and fast-paced revival helmed by gay director George C. Wolfe (who co-staged the Tony-winning Broadway version) still conveys the fury and fear while embracing the empathy and sadness also found in Kramer’s stunning play.

Kramer’s script wastes no time in establishing the horror of the situation. Seated in their doctor’s waiting room (circa 1981 Manhattan), several gay men tensely discuss the still nameless plague that is making them ill and killing their friends. They talk early symptoms (swollen glands, night sweats, fatigue), treatment (almost nothing) and chances of survival (slim). As one patient exits the office revealing a youthful face jarringly marred by Kaposi sarcoma lesions, another enters collapsing from the effects of a violent seizure. The plague is on and it’s going to get worse.

The action focuses on irascible but likeable writer/activist Ned Weeks, a Kramer stand-in superbly played with nuance and great heart by Patrick Been. After several informational meetings and an examination with Dr. Brookner (Patricia Wettig), a prickly physician whose patients include many of the epidemics’ first victims, Ned is convinced that gay men will need to save themselves. He suspects the disease is sexually transmitted.

Determined to rally gays to action, Ned creates an advocacy group similar to Gay Men’s Health Crisis (co-founded by Kramer), and manages to grow the organization despite a lack of support from closeted New York City Mayor Ed Koch and a largely apathetic gay community. Eventually, Ned’s co-members, wrongly but understandably, reject his increasingly angry style as well as his promotion of total abstinence (the concept of safe sex would come later). “We just feel that you can’t tell people how to live,” says Bruce (Nick Mennell), one of the organization’s more popular members. Ned is forced out.

More than a tirade, “The Normal Heart” is also an absorbing family drama. Ned has the love and support of his hotshot lawyer brother played by John Procaccino, but yearns for his total acceptance. It’s also a medical mystery and quite strikingly, a sweet love story. While the plague rages, Ned unexpectedly finds love with Felix, a New York Times style writer beautifully played by handsome gay actor Luke Macfarlane. He’s Ned’s first serious lover.

In the second act when Felix is diagnosed with the deadly virus, he warns Ned that things will become messy, and indeed they do. Messy and heartbreaking, as evidenced by the ongoing sniffles and stifled sobs heard throughout Arena’s Kreeger Theatre.

Plague weary, the central characters finally crack in a series of emotionally raw monologues. Beleaguered activist Mickey (subtly played by Michael Berresse) considers suicide; the typically reserved Dr. Brookner rails against the smug government doctor who refuses her application for a grant; conservative Bruce, a bank V.P. and former Green Beret, dissolves to tears explaining his late lover’s humiliating death; and Ned fiercely expresses his disappointment with the gay community’s inadequate early response to the epidemic.

David Rockwell’s stark set is quietly monumental: White walls embossed with AIDS-related words and phrases (also white) which — depending on the David Weiner’s smart lighting — can or cannot be seen in relief. Also, various locale descriptions and, most affectively, the names of actual AIDS victims are projected on to the set. As the play progresses, these projected names grow exponentially.

The terrific cast also includes Christopher J. Hanke as Tommy Boatwright, a saucy but caring southerner; Jon Levenson as the mayor’s imperious aide de camp; local actor Chris Dinolfo is the young patient with K.S; and Tom Berklund plays Grady, a dim but well-built volunteer.

For Kramer, who learned he was HIV-positive in 1988, “The Normal Heart” might simply serve as proof that he was right all along, but that’s antithetical to his fighting spirit. At Arena, leaflets penned by Kramer decrying the un-won global war on AIDS are distributed to audience members as they leave. The battle continues.

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Out & About

Blade’s Peter Rosenstein holds book talk in Rehoboth

‘Born This Gay’ memoir explored

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Longtime Washington Blade contributor Peter Rosenstein will hold an author talk on Thursday, July 25 at 5:30 p.m. at CAMP Rehoboth (37 Baltimore Ave., Rehoboth Beach, Del.) in conversation with fellow author Fay Jacobs. The pair will discuss Rosenstein’s new memoir, “Born This Gay: My Life of Activism, Politics, Travel, and Coming Out.” Register at camprehoboth.org.

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Theater

Capital Fringe connects emerging artists with curious audiences

Annual arts festival runs throughout July

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Dancer Wren Coleman in ‘Alone and Together.’ (Photo by Kylene Cleaver)

Capital Fringe
July 11-21
Capitalfringe.org

Throughout July, Capital Fringe, D.C.’s annual edgy performing arts festival, continues its mission of connecting emerging artists with curious audiences. Among this year’s promising lineup, there are works featuring the personal stories and viewpoints of queer performers and theater makers. 

Fringe is daring and experimental, and with tickets at just $15, it’s a bargain to see these mostly new works performed at easily reachable venues including two established spaces at DCJCC (1529 16th St., N.W.), and three stages, Delirium, Bliss, and Laughter, found in a sprawling former retail space at 1150 Connecticut Ave., N.W.   

Included in the offerings is Sharp Dance Company. Helmed by director Diane Sharp-Nachsin, the accomplished group presents “Alone and Together” (July 18-21) at DCJCC in Dupont.  

Sharp company member Wren Coleman, a transmasculine dancer and educator based in Philadelphia, describes the company as very LGBTQ friendly and notes that “Alone and Together” is comprised of five pieces with some of particular interest to queer people. 

“Awakenings,” choreographed by Kevin Ferguson, speaks about his experience coming out as Black gay man. Coleman says “the piece hits me very hard. It talks about the ways how those who’ve loved you your entire life might perceive you and the different stages you go through from the initial anxieties, to finding and expressing queer love. It’s truly a beautiful piece.” 

Sharp Dance Company is Coleman’s dance family. When he came out as both trans and gay, Colman was scared. He says, “because dance is very gendered, I was worried that I might land on the outskirts of the community that I love so very much, but that wasn’t the case. Diane [Sharp-Nachsin] welcomed me with open arms; she’s helped me with my training, and helped me transition from a female-born dancer to a male dancer who dances male roles. She’s been incredibly supportive.” 

At a little over an hour long, “Alone and Together” truly has something for everyone, says Coleman. The company brings together very dynamic, contemporary modern pieces, some more current than others, but all impactful and thought provoking. 

This year marks both the company and Coleman’s second consecutive year at Fringe. Last year, the company was singled out as “Best Dance.” 

“It was an absolutely lovely experience with great crowds, says Coleman. “Since then, some of those audience members have come to see our work in Philadelphia and North Carolina. We’re really grateful to the Washington community.” 

At the Bliss, Rodin Alcerro is directing his new play “Pondering About My Memories” (July 13-21), the story of a 30-year-old man who is remembering his first teenage same-sex crush. “It’s a dialogue a between the present and the past surrounding forbidden love,” Alcerro explains. 

Born and raised in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, Alcerro has lived in D.C. for five years. So far, his theatrical credits are mostly for acting (GALA, Synetic, 1st Stage), but more recently he’s been transitioning from acting to directing and playwriting: “Not long ago, I reached a point in my life where I felt playing a character wasn’t enough to say all the things I wanted to say; I needed to share my own stories, and tell what I feel is necessary to tell.” 

The play’s protagonist is portrayed by Alcerro’s real life partner Pablo Guillen opposite Joshua Cole Lucas as the crush. Alcerro and both actors have experience with acclaimed local movement-based company Synetic, an asset for Alcerro’s very physical play. 

While the two-hander plumbs present and past, it’s not entirely autobiographical: Alcerro says, “That’s the good thing about fiction; it’s a mix of fact and what’s imagined. My play comes from a personal place. The situation and character relate to me as a person but the fiction makes it more interesting, I think.” 

Other Fringe works with queer content include “How to Reinvent Yourself in 5 (not-so) easy steps,” written and performed by Gennie (G) Minzyk; Caitlin Frazier’s “Re: Writing,” a new play about the ethics of writing in which a young queer couple navigates the beginning of a relationship; and Steamworks Productions’ “Existential People,” a Jean-Paul Sartre inspired tale of three gay men (who also happen to be murderers and criminals) as they are led “over the River Styx” into Hades.

 For further details go to Capitalfringe.org

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Calendar

Calendar: July 12-18

LGBTQ events in the days to come

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Friday, July 12

Center Aging Friday Tea Time will be at 2 p.m. on Zoom. This is a social hour for older LGBTQ+ adults. Guests are encouraged to bring a beverage of choice. For more information, email [email protected]

Saturday, July 13

Go Gay DC will host “LGBTQ+ Community Brunch” at 11 a.m. at Freddie’s Beach Bar & Restaurant. This fun weekly event brings the DMV area LGBTQ community, including allies, together for food and conversation. Attendance is free and more details are available on Eventbrite.

DC Comedy Clubhouse will host “DC’s Best Pride Comedy Show” at 8 p.m. This will be a night filled with laughter, fun, and celebration of Pride. Join for an evening of performances by talented comedians who will keep you entertained throughout the show. Tickets are $15 and can be purchased on Eventbrite

Sunday, July 14

Go Gay DC will host “LGBTQ+ Community Dinner” at 7 p.m. at Federico Ristorante Italiano. Attendance is free and more details are available on Eventbrite.

AfroCode DC will be at 4 p.m. at Decades DC. This event will be an experience of non-stop music, dancing, and good vibes and a crossover of genres and a fusion of cultures. Tickets cost $40 and can be purchased on Eventbrite

Monday, July 15

Rainbow History Project will host “LGBTQ History Walking Tour of East Dupont and 17th Street” at 7:30 p.m. This walking tour of East Dupont and 17th Street will cover bars long-gone, women’s music, and activists’ headquarters. For more details, visit Eventbrite

Center Aging: Monday Coffee & Conversation will be at 10 a.m. on Zoom. This is a social hour for older LGBTQ adults. Guests are encouraged to bring a beverage of their choice. For more details, email [email protected]

Tuesday, July 16

Pride on the Patio Events will host “LGBTQ Social Mixer” at 5:30 p.m. at Showroom. Dress is casual, fancy, or comfortable. Guests are encouraged to bring their most authentic self to chat, laugh, and get a little crazy. Admission is free and more details are on Eventbrite.

Gay Moms Club will host “Quick Chats: Overcoming Religious Stigma” at 4 p.m. at a location disclosed after registering. In this 30-minute session, LGBTQ moms discuss how to handle homophobia from extended family members. To register, visit Eventbrite

Wednesday, July 17

Job Club will be at 6 p.m. on Zoom. This is a weekly job support program to help job entrants and seekers, including the long-term unemployed, improve self-confidence, motivation, resilience and productivity for effective job searches and networking — allowing participants to move away from being merely “applicants” toward being “candidates.” For more information, email [email protected] or visit thedccenter.org/careers.

“Ariana and the Rose / Bright Light Bright Light” will be at 8 p.m. at DC9 Nightclub. Tickets start at $15 and are available on Eventbrite

Thursday, July 18

Go Gay DC will host “LGBTQ+ Book Club” at 7:30 p.m. at Federico Ristorante Italiano Freddie’s Beach Bar & Restaurant. The book to be discussed is “Brideshead Revisited” by Evelyn Waugh. For more details, visit Eventbrite.

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