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Lights out, fun begins

Two current Signature productions find illumination in the dark

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Rex Daugherty, Jefferson Farber, Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare's R&J, Signature Theatre, theater, gay news, Washington Blade
Rex Daugherty, Jefferson Farber, Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare's R&J, Signature Theatre, theater, gay news, Washington Blade

Two students (Rex Daugherty, left, and Jefferson Farber) get caught up in their reading of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ in ‘Shakespeare’s R&J,’ now playing at Virginia’s Signature Theatre through March 3. (Photo by Teresa Wood, courtesy Signature)

‘Shakespeare’s R&J’
Through March 3
Signature Theatre
4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington
$40-$89
703-573-SEAT
signature-theatre.org

It’s not a bong or porn. The contraband hidden beneath the dorm floorboards in this Catholic boys’ prep school is a nicely bound copy of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” In a repressed world where every movement is dictated by a bell’s toll and days are filled with rote recitations of Latin verb conjugations and catechism, it seems escaping into the play is the thing. So, each night after lights out, four teenage boys whip out their flashlights and energetically act out the bard’s torrid tale of star-crossed young lovers.

“Shakespeare’s R&J” now playing at Signature Theatre, is a play within a play — both a male adolescent coming of age story and an edited version of the classic. Like the horny teenagers in the original text, the heat between R&J’s Romeo, the poetically ardent Student 1 (Alex Mills) and his determined Juliet, Student 2 (Jefferson Farber) is real. The lovers’ recognition of attraction — definitely the play’s most powerful moment — is followed by plenty of kisses and contact. Effectively divvying up the remainder of the parts are Student 3 (Joel David Santner) and Student 4 (Rex Daugherty) who is particularly uncomfortable with his schoolmates’ raging same-sex romance and does what he can to stop it.

Staged by “R&J’s” author Joe Calarco (who is gay), the production (Signature’s first-ever in the round) is beautiful to watch. Impeccably rehearsed, the appealingly boyish cast moves nonstop with manic energy and teenage boy horseplay, while never missing a cue or bit of business. James Kronzer’s impressively spare-yet-rich wood set is gorgeously lit by Chris Lee who slyly creates Verona’s romantic lattices, shadows and misty rain showers without a drop of water.

As the four students become increasingly involved in the play, they shed their jackets, ties, sweater vests and inhibitions, taking their bodies and emotions far away from their stultifyingly structured days. And when they reach the end of the of Shakespeare’s beloved tragedy, will they return lockstep to a buttoned-down life of bells and indoctrination? Or will each choose his own way?

Though entirely unsubtle, “R&J’s” ending is undeniably affirming.

‘Black Comedy’
Through March 2
No Rules Theatre Company
Signature Theatre
4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington
$30
703-820-9771
norulestheatre.org

If you’re into farce, there’s a humdinger titled “Black Comedy” running concurrently next door in Signature’s more intimate ARK Theatre. Mounted by No Rules Theatre Company, the spirited production marks the beginning of an enviable three-year residency at Signature for the young company.

Penned by British playwright Peter Shaffer, the 1966 romp takes place mostly in the dark. Up-and-coming artist Brindsley (Jerzy Gwiazdowski) and his facile but connected girlfriend Carol (Kathryn Saffell) are planning a special gathering in which Brindsley will both meet Carol’s very conservative father Colonel Melkett (Matthew R. Wilson) and show his sculptures to a rich German art collector. But all goes wrong when the building’s main fuse blows leaving the hosts and their guests in total darkness. In the playwright’s brilliantly reversed conceit, the stage is illuminated when the lights are out, and is darkened when the lights are meant to be on, allowing us to see the awkwardness and hilarity of an evening spent without light.

All the usual farce stock players are on hand: In addition to the wily young man, dim debutante and her stuffy colonel father, there’s the spinster Miss Furnival (Lisa Hodsoll) who more than loosens up after accidentally downing a few drinks in the dark; Harold Gorringe (Brian Sutow), the campy gay neighbor with a penchant for old China and younger men; and a sensitive repairman with an eye for art. Also there’s Brindsley’s clever, ex-lover Clea (Dorea Schmidt), a part written by Shaffer especially for his pal Maggie Smith most presently of TV’s “Downton Abbey” fame.

The very able cast is game indeed, ready and willing to fall over chairs and bump into walls in the dark. There’s an especially wonderful mid-play sequence in which Gwiazdowski’s agility and physical comedy talents along with director Matt Cowart’s amusingly inventive staging are shown to best advantage. While guests exchange middle class mundanities, Gwiazdowski’s Brindsley moves a roomful of secretly borrowed furniture in the dark from his bohemian digs (compliments of John Bowhers) back to Gorringe’s piss elegant flat down the hall.

A review of “Black Comedy” demands a nod to Travis McHale for his marvelously upside down lighting: When candles are lit, stage lights dim. A shining flashlight makes things even darker.

The playwright Shaffer, who is gay, went on to write “Equus,” that disturbing drama about a boy and his obsession with horses, and the delightful comic-tragedy “Amadeus,” before being knighted in 2001. Though the LGBT experience isn’t central to his work, gay characters frequently appear in his plays.

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Theater

‘Rose: You Are Who You Eat’ an irreverent romp at Woolly Mammoth

Solo performance by John Jarboe offers much to consume

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John Jarboe in ‘Rose: You Are Who You Eat’ at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. (Photo by Teresa Castracane)

‘Rose: You Are Who You Eat’
Though June 23
Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company
641 D St., N.W.
$60-$82
Woollymammoth.net

With “Rose: You Are Who You Eat,” a solo performance by John Jarboe (she/her), now at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, there’s a lot to uncover and consume.  

For much of the show, the appealing Jarboe comes across as a cute cis gay guy playing dress up in a pair of tighty-whities and sparkly go-go boots, but it’s something else and she’s ready to go there. 

Jarboe is a cannibal. Not in the usual sense. She learned from a well-meaning aunt that while still in the womb, she ate her twin, and that’s what made Jarboe the way she is (a reference to gender queerness).

Despite the aunt’s awkward delivery of family dish, the prenatal news struck a chord with Jarboe: the vanishing twin who would have been named Rose, became increasingly connected to her own identity. Along with the inevitable jokes about eating her sister’s spaghetti thin hair and tasty eyeballs, there’s meaty matter unfolding onstage. 

Not entirely unexpected, Jarboe also harbors mommy issues. Mom, here referred to as “Mother” for the sake of anonymity, is a buttoned-down tax accountant who the more perturbed she becomes the wider her forced smile grows. And while Jarboe needs to have that long overdue talk with Mother, something always seems to get in the way; invariably it’s tax season.

Assisted by some primary source props (a baby book, notes, a string of pearls filched from Mother’s jewelry box), Jarboe further digs into gender expression and identity. Her performance career began in her child bedroom closet with a flashlight and makeshift costume, an obsession to which her parents initially subscribed, later not as much. 

Among the 75-minute-long show’s highlights are five or so songs, rock numbers and redolent ballads composed by Jarboe, Emily Bate, Daniel de Jesús, Pax Ressler and Be Steadwell. 

It’s definitely a solo show conceived and delightfully performed by Jarboe; however, she’s supported by a terrific four-person band (costumed in what appeared from Row D to be rosebush inspired jumpsuits) including Mel Regn, Yifan Huang, Daniel de Jesús, and music director Emily Bate. Bate is a singer, composer and performer who runs a queer and trans community chorus in Philadelphia called Trust Your Moves, an experiment in collective singing designed around liberation and co-creation.

As Jarboe moves into her 30s, she celebrates and incorporates her lost twin as part of herself with a new intensity. She writes letters, yearning for even the most tepid reply. Her obsession with Mother remains a thing too.

Dressed in a sylphlike rosy red gown (by costume designer Rebecca Kanach) Jarboe uses call-and-response (with the audience standing in for Mother) in search of some resolution. It’s beautifully done. 

With various kinds of backing coming from CulturalDC, the Washington Blade, Capital Pride, the Bearded Ladies Cabaret and other New York-based groups, there’s nothing itinerant cabaret looking about “Rose.” Directed by MK Tuomanen, it’s an elevated, visually engaging production. 

For instance, set and video designer Christopher Ash’s projections shown on both a serviceable scrim and later a wondrously huge toile curtain, beautifully feature photos from an ostensibly idyllic Midwestern childhood. We see a young Jarboe not only enjoying hockey, fishing, and hunting, but also pulling off a strikingly girly, cheesecake pose.  

At the top of the show, there’s live video of Jarboe’s outsized mouth devouring wings fished from a bucket of fried chicken. Hints of cannibalism? 

“Rose: You Are Who You Eat” is an irreverent romp, deeply personal yet relatable. It’s an evening of poignantly performed moments, off the cuff laughs, and some awkward/sexy audience interaction. 

As a performer, Jarboe lays herself bare, exposing strengths (rich melodious voice, presence, ingenuity) and weaknesses (garrulity and more than a few un-landed jokes) in equal turns. 

Hers is a world that invites audiences to just let go and go with it. Jarboe’s intrepid journey melds the familiar and the startling. In short, it’s a trip worth taking. 

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PHOTOS: Capital Pride Festival and Concert

Keke Palmer, Billy Porter among entertainers

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Billy Porter performs at the 2024 Capital Pride Festival on Sunday. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The 2024 Capital Pride Festival and Concert was held along Pennsylvania Avenue in Northwest D.C. on Sunday, June 9. Performers included Sapphira Cristál, Keke Palmer, Ava Max, Billy Porter and Exposé.

(Washington Blade photos by Michael Key)

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Out & About

Get ready for Baltimore Pride

Events scheduled throughout weekend

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Baltimore Pride Parade (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Baltimore Pride begins this weekend on Friday, June 14 in the heart of the city.

There will be a variety of events, the main ones being Mt. Vernon Pride on June 14 at 2 p.m. on the 200 Block of W. Read St., the Parade and Block Party on Saturday, June 15 at 3 p.m. on N. Charles St., and Pride in the Park on Sunday, June 15 at 3 p.m. at Druid Hill Park.

For more event details, visit Baltimore Pride’s website

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