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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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Photos

PHOTOS: International LGBTQ Leaders Conference opening reception

Politicians and activists from around the world met and mingled at the JW Marriott

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Politicians and activists from around the world met and mingled at the JW Marriott. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The LGBTQ Victory Institute held an opening reception for the 2021 International LGBTQ Leaders Conference at the JW Marriott on Thursday.

(Washington Blade photos by Michael Key)

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Theater

Meet the husbands and creative partners behind ‘Christmas Angel’

A funny, redemptive world premiere with a diverse cast

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Stephen Gregory Smith and Matt Conner with pugs Edgar Allan Pug and Lord Byron.

The Christmas Angel
Dec. 9-19
Creative Cauldron
410 South Maple Avenue
Falls Church, VA 22046
Tickets:  $35. Students $20.
Masks and proof of vaccination are required
creativecauldron.org

“Ours is like a lava lamp,” says composer Matt Conner describing the collaborative creative process he shares with musical writing partner and husband Stephen Gregory Smith. “We move together in motion in a continual ebb and flow.” 

A couple for 23 years, married for eight, and making musicals together for 11, the talented pair’s current offering is “The Christmas Angel,” opening on Dec. 9 at Creative Cauldron in Fairfax. 

A musical adaptation of the same-named 1910 novel by Abbie Farwell Brown, it’s the story of Angelina Terry (Kanysha Williams), a wealthy embittered recluse who learns the lessons of Christmas from a box of old toys that she casts into the street. Also featured in the hour-long one-act are Ryan Sellers as Horton, Angelina’s butler, and Carl Williams who plays her brother. The angel and toys are brought to life by an ensemble of a dozen teens plucked from the company’s musical theater training program. 

Via phone from their home in Arlington, Smith and Conner shared thoughts on their new show and working style. In attendance are pug dogs Edgar Allan Pug and Lord Byron, whom they call Eddie and Byron in public – otherwise “it’s just too much,” says Conner whose ultimate fantasy involves living on a pug farm where he’d write music and present the occasional show.

Rather than finish each other’s sentences, the duo (both Helen Hayes Award winners – Smith for acting and Conner for directing) expound on one another’s thoughts.

While Conner composes the music, Smith writes the book and lyrics, and together they co-direct. “But there’s no end and beginning where my job ends and his begins,” says Smith. “What we do complements each other’s work.”

Still, there are differences. Smith’s approach is focused. He writes pages at night and edits in the morning. Conner’s method is more relaxed, preferring to sit at the keyboard and talk rather than writing things down. But throughout the creative process, there’s never a moment when the project isn’t on their mind. They can be watching TV or buying milk when an exciting idea pops up, says Conner. 

A clever nod to Dickens, the novel is more than just a female “Christmas Carol,” says Smith. And in some spots, he’s beefed up the 55-page book, fleshing out both storyline and characters including the toys whose shabby appearance belies a youthful confidence. 

He adds, “Every holiday season you go to the attic and pull down the box, or boxes in my case, of holiday decorations and it’s all old but it’s new. That’s the nostalgic feeling of toys from the attic that we’re trying to find through the show.”

The music is a combination of traditional carols performed by a hand bell chorus, and original Christmas songs that intentionally sound very familiar. The score includes songs “Don’t Hide Your Light,” “The Sweetest Gift,” and “Yestermore” – the moment when the past, present, and future come together. 

Also, there’s Angelina’s Bah! Humbug! number “Fiddlesticks,” her great renunciation of the holidays. She believes the world a disappointing place to be, and the sooner realized the better. 

Conner and Smith aren’t new to Creative Cauldron. Through the company’s Bold New Works project, the team was commissioned to write five world premiere musicals in just five years. The result was “The Turn of the Screw,” “Monsters of the Villa Diodati,” “Kaleidoscope,” “Witch” and “On Air.”

Judging from some of the titles and their slightly macabre content, it seems the duo was better poised to write for Halloween than Christmas, but nonetheless, they were commissioned. Creative Cauldron’s producing director Laura Connors Hull brought them the obscure yet charming book that surprisingly had never before been reworked for stage or celluloid, and the pair got to work last spring. 

Conner and Smith agree, “The show is a lot of things rolled up into one.”

Not only is it a funny, redemptive world premiere with a diverse cast, but it’s also a story largely unknown to today’s audiences. Additionally, the show boasts intergenerational appeal while holding messages about Christmas, family, and finding light when you’re in a darker place. 

More information about Conner and Smith, including links to their music and popular podcast “The Conner & Smith Show,” can be found on their terrific website at connersmithmusicals.com.   

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Books

‘Capote’s Women’ is catnip to older pop culture fans

Revisiting iconic author’s seven ‘swans’

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(Book cover courtesy of Putnam)

Capote’s Women
By Laurence Leamer
C.2021, Putnam $28/356 pages

Her lips are locked tight.

Your best friend knows all your secrets, and she’s keeping them; you told her things you had to tell somebody, and she’s telling nobody. You always knew you could trust her; if you couldn’t, she wouldn’t be your BFF. But as in the new book “Capote’s Women” by Laurence Leamer, what kind of a friend are you?

For months, Truman Capote had been promising a blockbuster.

Following his success with “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and “In Cold Blood,” he was “one of the most famous authors in the world” but he needed a career-booster. The novel he was writing, he teased, would be about “his swans,” seven wealthy, fashionable women who quite personified “beauty, taste, and manners.”

His first swan was Barbara “Babe” Paley, whom he’d met on a trip with the David Selznicks to Jamaica. For Capote, “Babe was the epitome of class,” simply “perfect” in every way; it helped that the famously gay writer was no threat to Paley’s “madly jealous” husband.

Babe’s “dearest friend” was Nancy “Slim” Keith, who quickly learned that if a lady wanted her confidences kept, she didn’t tell Capote anything. She shouldn’t have trusted Babe, either: When Slim left for a European trip, Babe asked if Slim’s husband could accompany Babe’s friend, Pamela Hayward, to a play.

Slim was aware of Pamela’s predatory reputation, but what could she say?

Of course, Pamela, another of Truman’s swans, stole Slim’s man, a scandal that Capote loved.

Gloria Guinness was highly intelligent, possibly enough to be a spy in Nazi Germany. Lucy “C.Z.” Guest was an upper-crust “elitist” with a “magical aura.” Marella Agnelli “was born an Italian princess”; Lee Radziwill, of course, was Jacqueline Kennedy’s sister.

Through the late 1960s, Capote claimed to be writing his masterpiece, his tour de force based on his swans, but several deadlines passed for it. He was sure Answered Prayers “would turn him once again into the most talked-about author in America.”

Instead, when an excerpt from it was published, his swans got very ruffled feathers.

Every time you stand in line for groceries, the tabloids scream at you with so much drama that you either love it or hate it. Or, in the case of “Capote’s Women,” you cultivate it.

And that’s infinitely fun, as told by author Laurence Leamer.

Happily, though, Leamer doesn’t embellish or disrespect these women or Capote; he tells their tales in order, gently allowing readers’ heads to spin with the wild, globe-hopping goings-on but not to the point that it’s overdone. While most of this book is about these seven beautiful, wealthy, and serially married women – the Kardashians of their time, if you will – Capote is Leamer’s glue, and Truman gets his due, as well.

Readers who devour this book will be sure that the writer would’ve been very happy about that.

“Capote’s Women” should be like catnip to celeb-watchers of a Certain Age but even if you’re not, find it. If you’re a Hollywood fan, you’ll want to get a lock on it.

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