March 7, 2013 at 12:02 pm EST | by Patrick Folliard
Tale of two Washingtons
Race, James Whalen, Michael Anthony Williams, Crashonda Edwards, gay news, Washington Blade, theater

The cast of ‘Race,’ director John Vreeke’s latest project. From left, James Whalen, Michael Anthony Williams and Crashonda Edwards.

Through March 17
Theater J
1529 16th Street NW

Maybe six will be a charm. John Vreeke recently received his sixth Helen Hayes Award nomination for outstanding direction. This time it’s for Woolly Mammoth’s critically well-received production of “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity.” If Vreeke’s name is ultimately called at the awards ceremony celebrating D.C.-area theater in early April, it will be his first win.

Chatting via phone from his home in Seattle (a little house with a big view of Puget Sound that he shares with his partner of 36 years), Vreeke says he definitely keeps awards in perspective. But despite his philosophical tone, he gives the sense that ending this ongoing non-winning streak wouldn’t be such a bad thing.

As a gay director in his 60s known for tackling intellectually complex plays, Vreeke might have seemed an odd match for “Chad Deity,” an action packed, hip-hop-influenced morality tale set in the world of professional wrestling. But Vreeke was so impressed with playwright Kristoffer Diaz’s distinctive language that he knew it was the right project for him and Woolly’s artistic director Howard Shalwitz agreed.

Vreeke’s prior effort, ‘Chad Deity:’

“I was lucky from the start,” he says. “I worked with a great cast, particularly JJ Perez who’d been waiting to do this play for four years, and an equally good design team.”

Vreeke describes his directorial style as invasive. He understands but doesn’t ascribe to the idea of directors getting out of the way and letting actors do their work.

“Some directors are cheerleaders: They put together the right people and stand back and let them do their thing. That’s not me,” he says. “Early on, I’ll step in with some very strong ideas about concept, scene, character and what play is saying about the world. But I’m not inflexible. Throughout the three-to-five week rehearsal process there is constant evolution and redefinition with lots of discussion. I try to stay very open to who the actors are themselves. After all, that’s primarily how they got the role — I see something in them that connects to the role. Some call it type casting. I call it smart casting.”

Born in the Netherlands, Vreeke (pronounced Vrā-key) was 8 when his family immigrated to the U.S. They settled near an uncle in Salt Lake City and quickly became immersed in a tightly knit, religiously austere Dutch Reformed community. Vreeke knew he was gay from a young age, but understandably kept it to himself. As a teenager, he was a standout actor in his high school’s drama club. “Theater,” he says, “quickly became a form of expression that put issues of sexuality, religion and growing up poor on the back burner.”

After earning his master’s in directing from the University of Utah, Vreeke began his career at Houston’s Alley Theater. Next, he and his partner (a radio executive) moved to Seattle where Vreeke spent five years in television production. From 2000-2009, they lived in D.C. During this time Vreeke returned to theater, mostly directing at Theatre J, MetroStage and Woolly Mammoth (where he’s a company member). And though they are once again based in Seattle, the bulk of Vreeke’s directing projects continue to be here in Washington.

“I can’t seem to give it away in Seattle,” Vreeke says, “but fortunately D.C. keeps asking me back and I’m grateful for that.”

His most recent work — a production of David Mamet’s “Race” currently running at D.C.’s Theater J — examines “guilt, betrayal and racial posturing” in a racially diverse law firm. Written after the formerly liberal playwright’s conversion to neo-conservatism, it’s not quite as nuanced as his earlier works, Vreeke says. “But Mamet’s wonderful economy of writing is there, allowing a director to play the four-person cast as if it were a string quartet. It’s extraordinary.”

This spring Vreeke is staging Michael Hollinger’s otherworldly love story “Ghost-Writer” for MetroStage in Alexandria. In the fall, he’s slated to stage the area premiere of “The Lyons,” Nicky Silver’s comic exploration of family dysfunction at Bethesda’s Roundhouse Theatre, and in 2014 he’s remounting his production of Stephen Adly Guirgis’ “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot” at Forum Theatre in Silver Spring.

“I think the Washington theater scene is extraordinary, particularly in terms of growth for medium-sized theater and the germination of small theatres like Forum,” Vreeke says. “And I think the best is yet to come. Theater communities go in cycles, and I think D.C. has yet to hit its peak, especially with its new crop of young and talented artistic directors. I hope I can continue to be a part of it.”

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