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Date with death

Experimental Studio production uses device to clever effect



Holly Twyford, Studio Theatre, Dirt, gay news, Washington Blade

Through Nov. 11
Studio Theatre
1501 14th Street, NW

Holly Twyford, Studio Theatre, Dirt, gay news, Washington Blade

Ubiquitous local actor Holly Twyford, a winner in this year’s Best of Gay D.C. readers’ poll, in ‘Dirt,’ a new play on the boards now at Studio. (Photo by Scott Suchman, courtesy Studio Theatre)

Climbing the steep stairs to Stage 4 at the top of Studio Theatre’s expansive complex, the smell of earth becomes increasingly noticeable. Not a bad thing when the ascent leads to a play titled “Dirt.”

In British dramatist Bryony Lavery’s new work about mortality and decay, dirt is everywhere: It’s spewed from the mouths of battling lovers; it’s what a young woman feels like when she beds down her new date; and it’s what the lead character becomes when she dies. It also fills the floor of Debra Booth’s spare and otherwise clean set.

Lavery’s play tracks the lives of several characters but primarily focuses on Harper (Holly Twyford), a perpetually late doctoral student, who after an combative dinner date with her tightly wound boyfriend Matt (Matthew Montelongo) followed by athletic, angry sex, dies unexpectedly from chemical overload. Not a lethal mix of illicit drugs or a mistakenly ingested bottle of rat poison, but rather from lifelong exposure to the countless ingredients found in soaps, body scrubs and everyday household cleaners — all the things used to fend off insidious dirt.

Once dead, Harper’s lingers in her apartment watching as her decomposing corpse becomes dinner (as she puts it) for myriad bugs and bacteria. Five days later, she sees her guilt-stricken boyfriend discover her rotting body; and later hovers as her somewhat removed, professor mother (Carolyn Mignini) grapples with grief.

The characters comment on the plot. This sort of direct address works especially well for Twyford who makes an immediate and strong connection with the audience. And because Harper is well aware of her odious fate, she engages in some terrific snippets of gallows humor.

Rounding out the cast are Natalia Payne as Elle, a deeply frustrated Julliard-trained actor/server who does breathy voiceover work on the side, and Ro Boddie who plays Guy, a former drug/sex addict-turned-Reiki healer. Guy relates to dirt in an entirely different way from the others — he uses it to grow plants. Imagine that.

As the in-love but clashing Harper and Matt, Twyford and Montelongo (both gay) play marvelously off one another. Their increasingly tense, disastrous date provides the play’s most enjoyable moments. This production serves as a reunion for the talented pair — they’ve acted together at Studio before in “Faraway” and “Black Milk,” and in “The Little Dog Laughed” at Signature Theatre in Arlington.

Because “Dirt” is a production of Studio Lab (the arm of the company dedicated to fostering the development of streamlined premieres), all tickets are just $20. John Burkland’s emotive lighting design is top notch. For the most part, Frank Labovitz’s costumes are spot-on street clothes. But Harper’s often mentioned date dress seems wrong. Granted she’s an academic, but still — what 30-something, thin New Yorker meets her boyfriend for dinner at a hip restaurant wearing an unflattering purplish-blue tea dress?

Lavery (also gay) is best known for her acclaimed hit “Frozen,” a chilling three-handed portrait of a child killer. For several years she was artistic directed of the now-disbanded Gay Sweatshop, a London theater company that sprang out of the gay and lesbian liberation movement.

At two-plus hours, “Dirt” is too long. A little cutting would help, starting with some of those tiresome recitations of toxins, and an excruciating 11th hour speech in which Elle takes on the persona of a trial lawyer and sort of wraps things up. Also the show would benefit if director David Muse (Studio’s artistic director who staged a riveting production of “Frozen” at Studio in 2006) pushed the cast to goose up the pace a tad.

Though mostly jokey, a little pedantic and often obvious, “Dirt” is not without poetic and poignant moments. The most striking of which is the image of Harper’s lifeless body stretched rigidly across her favorite chair bathed by moonlight in an otherwise dark apartment.



An exciting revival of ‘Evita’ at Shakespeare Theatre

Out actor Caesar Samayoa on portraying iconic role of President Perón



Caesar Samayoa (center) and the cast of ‘Evita’ at Shakespeare Theatre Company. (Photo by DJ Corey Photography) 

Through Oct. 15
Shakespeare Theatre Company
Harman Hall
610 F St., N.W.

When Eva Perón died of cancer at 33 in 1952, the people’s reaction was so intense that Argentina literally ran out of cut flowers. Mourners were forced to fly in stems from neighboring countries, explains out actor Caesar Samayoa. 

For Samayoa, playing President Perón to Shireen Pimental’s First Lady Eva in director Sammi Cannold’s exciting revival of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Evita” at Shakespeare Theatre Company is a dream fulfilled. 

As a Guatemalan-American kid, he had a foot in two worlds. Samayoa lived and went to school in suburban Emerson, N.J. But he spent evenings working at his parents’ botanica in Spanish Harlem. 

During the drives back and forth in the family station wagon, he remembers listening to “Evita” on his cassette player: “It’s the first cast album I remember really hearing and understanding. I longed to be in the show.”

As an undergrad, he transferred from Bucknell University where he studied Japanese international relations to a drama major at Ithica College. His first professional gig was in 1997 playing Juliet in Joe Calarco’s off-Broadway “Shakespeare’s R&J.” Lots of Broadway work followed including “Sister Act,” “The Pee-Wee Herman Show,” and most significantly, Samayoa says, “Come From Away,” a musical telling of the true story of airline passengers stranded in Gander, Newfoundland during 9/11. He played Kevin J. (one half of a gay couple) and Ali, a Muslim chef.  

He adds “Evita” has proved a powerful experience too: “We’re portraying a populist power couple that changed the trajectory of a country in a way most Americans can’t fully understand. And doing it in Washington surrounded by government and politics is extra exciting.” 

WASHINGTON BLADE: How do you tap into a real-life character like Perón?

CAESAR SAMAYOA: Fortunately, Sammi [Connald] and I work similarly. With real persons and situations, I immerse myself into history, almost to a ridiculous extent. 

First day in the rehearsal room, we were inundated with artifacts. Sammi has been to Argentina several times and interviewed heavily with people involved in Eva and Peron’s lives. Throughout the process we’d sit and talk about the real history that happened. We went down the rabbit hole.

Sammi’s interviews included time with Eva’s nurse who was at her bedside when she died. We watched videos of those interviews. They’ve been an integral part of our production. 

BLADE: Were you surprised by anything you learned?

SAMAYOA: Usually, Eva and Perón’s relationship is portrayed as purely transactional.  They wrote love letters and I had access to those. At their country home, they’d be in pajamas and walk on the beach; that part of their life was playful and informal. They were a political couple but they were deeply in love too. I latched on to that. 

BLADE: And anything about the man specifically? 

SAMAYOA:  Perón’s charisma was brought to the forefront. In shows I’ve done, some big names have attended. Obama. Clinton. Justin Trudeau came to “Come From Away.” Within seconds, the charisma makes you give into that person. I’ve tried to use that.  

BLADE: And the part? 

SAMAYOA: Perón is said to be underwritten. But I love his power and the songs he sings [“The Art of the Possible,” “She is a Diamond,” etc.]. I’m fully a baritone and to find that kind of role in a modern musical is nearly impossible. And in this rock opera, I can use it to the full extent and feel great about it.

BLADE: “Evita” is a co-production with A.R.T. Has it changed since premiering in Boston? 

SAMAYOA: Yes, it has. In fact, 48 hours before opening night in Washington, we made some changes and they’ve really landed. Without giving too much away, we gave it more gravity in reality of time as well as Eva’s sickness and the rapid deterioration. It’s given our second act a huge kind of engine that it didn’t have. 

BLADE: You’re married to talent agent Christopher Freer and you’re very open. Was it always that way for you?

SAMAYOA: When I started acting professionally, it was a very different industry. We were encouraged to stay in the closet or it will cast only in a certain part. There was truth in that. There still is some truth in that, but I refuse to go down that road. I can’t reach what I need to reach unless I’m my most honest self. I can’t do it any other way.

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Out & About

HRC’s National Dinner is back

LGBTQ rights organization’s annual gala features Rhimes, Waithe, Bomer



Actor Matt Bomer will be honored at the HRC National Dinner.

The Human Rights Campaign will host its annual National Dinner on Saturday, Oct. 14 at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center.

The dinner’s honorees include world-famous producers, actors and entertainers whose work spotlights the fight for civil rights and social justice, including Shonda Rhimes, Lena Waithe and Matt Bomer.

A new event, as part of the weekend, — the Equality Convention — will take place the night before the dinner on Friday, Oct. 13. The convention will showcase the power of the LGBTQ equality movement, feature influential political and cultural voices, and bring together volunteer and movement leaders from across the country to talk about the path ahead.
For more details about the weekend, visit HRC’s website.

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Out & About

MLK Library to spotlight queer Asian writer

Trung Nguyen’s ‘The Magic Fish’ explored



The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library will host “A Conversation with Trung Nguyen, Novelist” on Wednesday, Oct. 4 at 7 p.m.

Nguyen’s book, “The Magic Fish” explores the LGBTQ experience and dives deep into Asian heritage and culture. United States Ambassador to Vietnam Ted Osius will attend the event and introduce Nguyen.

Admission is free and more details are available on Eventbrite.

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