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SPRING ARTS PREVIEW THEATER: ‘Blithe’ theatrical season

Hookers, grand dames and a gay president coming soon

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theater, gay news, Washington Blade
theater, gay news, Washington Blade

Angela Lansbury in ‘Blithe Spirit.’ (Photo by Joan Marcus; courtesy Center Stage Marketing)

Spring is the season of growth and renewal and the Rainbow Theatre Project (rainbowtheatreproject.com) is sprouting out all over. Helmed by out artistic director H. Lee Gable and managing director Michael Kelley, who is bisexual, Rainbow is committed to being D.C.’s premier theater for the LGBT community. Last season (Rainbow’s first), the company focused on staged readings of new works, but now the fledgling company is expanding with a one-night cabaret extravaganza titled “Torch: Songs from the Gay Life!” (Sunday at Bier Baron Tavern near Dupont Circle), featuring professional LGBT talent.

And in June, Rainbow is presenting a fully staged production of out playwright Paula Vogel’s “The Oldest Profession” (June 4-21) at Flashpoint. An early Vogel work, this play with music charts the professional decline of a senior madam and her stall of aging hookers during the Reagan era.

Baltimore’s Iron Crow Theatre presents “The Revelation of Bobby Pritchard,” by Rich Espey March 13-28. It’s billed as a “contemporary exploration of the clash between religious conviction and modern LGBT issues contained within the tumultuous dynamics of a typical American family.” It will be performed at the Baltimore Theatre Project (45 W. Preston St., Baltimore). Details at ironcrowtheatre.org.

At Ford’s Theatre (fords.org), out director Jeff Calhoun is staging “Freedom’s Song: Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War,” (March 13-May 20) an epic musical featuring the words of Lincoln and music inspired by the letters of those who lived through the war. Ford’s is developing this work as part of the Ford’s 150, a series of events commemorating the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination. The cast features talented local actor Stephen Gregory Smith as a Confederate private.

Smith’s husband Matt Conner is directing “Once on This Island” (May 8-31), Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty’s Caribbean-set, one-act musical at Creative Cauldron (creativecauldron.org) in Falls Church.

At Arena Stage (arenastage.org), out actor Jefferson Farber is playing Spike in Christopher Durang’s Tony-winning Chekhov-inspired comedy “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” (April 3-May 3). The script describes Spike as “an aspiring actor, 29, sexy, self-absorbed.” Spike spends much of the comedy shirtless and even treats audiences to a reverse strip tease.

Factory 449 (factory449.org) will present Radha Bharadwaj’’s “Closet Land” (April 16-May 20) at Anacostia Arts Center. Staged by out director Rick Hammerly, it centers on the interrogation of a children’s book author who is accused by the government of inciting anarchy in her work. The timely two-hander features talented company members Sara Barker and out actor David Lamont Wilson.

At MetroStage (metrostage.org) in Alexandria, out actor Michael Russotto stars opposite Susan Lynskey in John W. Lowell’s “The Letters” (May 7-June 7). Set in early 1930s Russia, Lowell’s suspenseful drama is inspired by the Soviets removal of all hints of homosexuality from composer Tchaikovsky’s letters and papers. Out director John Vreeke helms the production.

Studio Theatre (studiotheatre.org) presents “Jumpers for Goalposts” (May 13-June 21), a comedy about an amateur gay soccer team called Barely Athletic competing for a trophy in a LGBT league in the British working-class city of Hull. It’s a U.S. premiere of both the play and its out playwright Tom Wells, who is getting a lot of attention in England. There is a special Blade night planned for May 27.

This spring, National Theatre (thenationaldc.com) plays host to two great ladies of the stage. First it’s the remarkable Angela Lansbury in the tour of gay genius Noel Coward’s classic comedy “Blithe Spirit” (March 17-29). Lansbury plays the outlandish Madame Arcati, a medium who unwittingly summons up novelist Charles Condomine’s dead wife Elvira, much to his current wife Ruth’s dismay.

And then Barry Humphries brings his cat-eyed, lavender-haired lady from down under to the National in “Dame Edna’s Glorious Goodbye – the Farewell Tour” (April 21-26). So possums, get tickets. This may be your last chance to see the rapier witted dame on a local stage.

At Woolly Mammoth (woollymammoth.net) is the world premiere of “Lights Rise on Grace” (Marcy 30-April 26) by Chad Beckim. Billed as an examination of race, sexuality and family, it’s the story of a shy Chinese American who falls in love with Large, an outgoing African-American classmate. But their romance ends abruptly when Large is sent to prison for six years where he becomes lovers with Riece, a white fellow prisoner. Following his release, Large reunites with Grace but continues to have sex with men.

Then it’s “Zombie: The American” (May 25-June 21), a world premier from the marvelously talented out playwright Robert O’ Hara. The year is 2063 and the first openly gay president of the United States is dealing with imminent civil war, the threat of an African invasion, an adulterous First Gentleman, and zombies in the basement of the White House. What to do? “Zombie’s” four-person cast includes the seriously funny, out actor Sarah Marshall.

Theater J celebrates 30 years of gay actor/writer Charles Busch with a revival of “Tale of the Allergist’s Wife” June 3-July 5. Details at washingtondcjcc.org.

At Signature Theatre (signature-theatre.org), it’s another busy spring for out director Matthew Gardiner. He’s staging Nick Blaemire’s new musical “Soon” (March 10-April 26), the quirky story of Charlie, a 20-something woman who seems to have given up on life. Following “Soon,” Gardiner tackles “Cabaret” (May 12-June 28), the Weimar-set John Kander and Fred Ebb musical based on gay writer Christopher Isherwood’s biographical novel “Goodbye to Berlin.”  Wesley Taylor (NBC’s “Smash,” Broadway’s “The Addams Family” and “Rock of Ages”) stars as the Emcee and award-winning local out actor Bobby Smith plays Ernst, a likable guy who’s revealed to be a Nazi.

Nu Sass Productions (nusass.com), a D.C.-based female driven theater company is presenting Tony Kushner’s “A Bright Room Called Day” (March 12-April 5) at Caos on F Street, N.W. One of the gay playwright’s early works, “Bright Room” depicts the lives of a group of friends during the fall of the Weimar Republic and the rise of the Nazi Party in Berlin. Angela Pirko directs.

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Theater

‘Flight,’ an astonishing tale told using diorama and figures

Afghan brothers embark on arduous journey to U.K.

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‘Flight’ at Studio Theatre. (Photo by Mihaila Bodlovic)

‘Flight’
Through March 6
Studio Theatre’s Stage 4
1501 14th St., N.W.
$42-$52
studiotheatre.org

I wish I could fly. It’s a little boy’s dream, and certainly one that would be helpful to young Kabir who along with his older brother Aryan is traversing thousands of miles escaping their battered homeland Afghanistan in search of a future in the U.K.

Their arduous journey is titled “Flight,” an astonishingly moving tale told using diorama, tiny modeled figures, and voiceover. With neither live actors nor a traditional set, the Vox Matus (an innovative Glasgow-based theater company) production isn’t Studio Theatre’s typical offering, yet it serves as a compelling reopening lure after a long closure.

Despite seeming an ideal fit for the times, “Flight” wasn’t crafted with pandemic in mind (it premiered at the Edinburgh International Festival in 2017). The hybrid theater/installation is a reassuringly distanced theater experience.

After ascending to Studio’s third floor atrium, you’re handed a boarding pass and in small groups beckoned up to Stage 4 where you’re led to individual viewing booths. Then, seated comfortably and wearing head phones, you focus on over 200 small, brilliantly made dioramas, successively lit as they slowly pass by on a revolving carousel.

“Kabul, Tehran, Istanbul, Rome, Paris, London.” The green-eyed orphaned brothers repeat their direct route to a better life with unyielding determination. And the more it’s said, the more possible it seems. But minors traveling alone without passports is a perilous journey fraught with risk and miseries.

We meet Aryan and Kabir (voiced by Farshid Rokey and Nalini Chetty, receptively) just as they reach the Turkish coast and set sail to the E.U. in a rubber raft. Here, we’re also introduced to the first of many faceless profiteers – ruthless but necessary to the journey – who gain from human desperation.

Soon the boys land in Greece and are forced into farm labor at meager wages. When the harvest ends, the brothers hop a truck to Athens. As they move onward, their longing to attend school in the West, London to be specific, grows more intense.

Throughout what becomes a two-year odyssey, they wear out multiple pairs of trainers, encounter harsh weather, exploitation, sexual violence, hunger, and the occasional random act of kindness. As kids, they take time for a game of soccer and a plunge in the sea at Nice. But inevitably, such moments are cut short by officials depicted as menacing, uniformed seagulls.

“Flight’s” heavy themes and remarkable images blend well. The tiny tableaus chronicling the boys’ flight fittingly range from extraordinarily realistic to fantastical, alternately portraying the vastness and claustrophobic aspects of their ordeal. The intricately made models’ expressive faces, sometimes tear-streaked or bordering on joy, draw us to the likeable, intelligent brothers.

While Vox Motus’ co-artistic directors Jamie Harrison and Candice Edmunds conceive, direct and design the company’s innovative productions, collaboration with other artists is key to their success.

“Flight” is ably adapted by Oliver Emanuel from Caroline Brothers’ 2012 novel “Hinterland.” Enhancing the work’s intimate storytelling are Simon Wilkinson’s lighting design and composer and sound design by Mark Melville.

Each year more than 300,000 displaced children journey on their own. Behind that hideous number are individual stories; “Flight” effectively relays the personal story of two young Afghans, making them something other than a statistic.

After 45 minutes, the story ends. Slowly, you recede from the brothers’ reality in which you’ve been deeply immersed. A silent, black clad usher gently taps you on the shoulder and leads you out of Stage 4. For past productions, the vast versatile space has credibly passed as a nightclub and a church basement, among other things. This time it’s a window into an alternate world where a duly stamped official document means everything, sometimes including the difference between life and death.

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Theater

‘Nine Night’ explores Jamaican custom of mourning

‘Equally moving and hilarious in many parts’

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Timothy Douglas (Photo courtesy of Round House Theatre)

‘Nine Night’
Through Jan. 30
(Begins streaming on demand Jan. 20)
Round House Theatre
4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda, Md.
$41-$56, and $32.50 (virtual)
roundhousetheatre.org

When Round House Theatre began making plans for the U.S. premiere of Natasha Gordon’s “Nine Night,” they asked out director Timothy Douglas to interview with the playwright about helming the production. “It’s like we were separated at birth,” says Douglas. “It felt right from the first moment we met on Zoom, and I when I learned Natasha wanted to work with me, I made it work.”

A big success in London, “Nine Night” is a dramedy centered on the death of a family matriarch followed by the prescribed Jamaican tradition of exuberant mourning. 

The end-of-life custom entails nine consecutive nights of serious partying to celebrate the life of the departed, but there’s also a spiritual component. On the ninth night, it’s believed that the spirit returns to its earthly dwelling. By celebrating and rearranging furniture, the revelers discombobulate the deceased so they don’t want to stay, ensuring the spirit crosses over.

“In traditional Jamaican culture, nine night is a serious thing,” explains Douglas. “And while I didn’t set out to direct a dramedy. I found it equally moving and hilarious in many parts.”

Gordon, the London-born playwright of Jamaican descent, possessed only a casual knowledge of nine night growing up. But when her grandmother died, her mother became overwhelmed with a devotion to cultural specificity, and the ritual was thrust on the family. 

“From the playwright’s perspective what happened was chaos,” adds Douglas. “And going through that inspired her to write the play.”  

The work’s central character draws from the Gordons’ life experience straddling two different cultures. And while it was the play itself that really grabbed Douglas, he relates to that aspect too. 

“It connected a lot of dots for me,” says Douglas, 60. “Elders in my family are from the Caribbean and share similar ways of celebrating life and in particular the deceased. There was an immediate familiarity on a feeling level for me. And with every bit of specific research, it’s unlocked things within in me rather than being introduced to me cold.”

Douglas caught the theater bug in grade school, and it grew from there. When he attended Marymount Manhattan College it was transitioning from all women to coeducational, and though he was studying technical theater and not acting, he landed all the male leads in the college’s plays. 

It was a part during his last year at Marymount (“Beckett’s ‘Endgame’ of all things,” adds Douglas with a chuckle) that seemingly solidified his desire to be an actor. He went on to train at Yale followed by five or six years of acting professionally. 

But then something changed. The director ardently explains, “I’m grateful to acting. It gave me focus, a way to communicate and navigate complicated life experiences. It saved my life.” But after therapy and spiritual growth coupled with an epiphany experienced while acting in a play in West Hollywood, he knew it wasn’t for him. He needed to direct. 

While “Nine Night” has no LGBTQ characters as identified in the play, Douglas’ upcoming project is a different story. 

In spring, Douglas makes his first foray into staging opera with Terrance Blanchard’s “Champion” at Boston Lyric Opera. It’s based on the life of queer boxer Emile Griffith, the talented welterweight who regained the world championship in 1962 when gay sex was still classified as a crime in developed countries. 

And to Douglas’ astonishment, internationally famous mezzo soprano Stephanie Blythe is cast to play a supporting role in “Champion.” He’s both excited and terrified: “I’m incredibly lucky that she’s a part of the production. But any hope of flying under the radar with my first opera is over.” 

At 18, Douglas made a beeline from Long Island to Manhattan. For many years he called New York home. Now he’s in Boston where he is the distinguished artist in residence at Emerson College. But over the years, he’s maintained a special relationship with the DMV. In addition to being sort of a staple at Round House, he’s directed to much acclaim at Arena Stage, Studio Theatre, and Theater Alliance to name a few. 

In fact, his professional directorial career kickstarted at D.C.’s Folger with “Richard III” in 1995. 

“I was a complete unknown to them. I had no track record yet. But the Folger was at a point where they could take risks. They needed to replace a director, and on the recommendation of a costume designer who’d heard of me, Michael Tolaydo who played the production’s titular role, agreed to take me on. That really changed things for me.”

“Being pretty much a gun for hire, every time D.C. asks me back, I always say yes.”

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Theater

A look back at the best in 2021 D.C. theater

Stages sprung back to life after shutdowns

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Shakespeare Theatre Company reopened in 2021 with ‘Blindness.’ (Photo by Helen Maybanks)

When everything was closed, Shakespeare Theatre Company (STC) took a chance by reopening in the spring of 2021. 

Theater lovers longed for something, and after a year of unquestionably defensible darkness, (STC) opened the doors of the Harman with Donmar Warehouse’s gripping production of “Blindness,” an immersive sound and light installation anchored by Juliet Stevenson’s astonishing recorded vocal performance heard — jarringly, soothingly, eerily — through binaural headphones. 

D.C.’s first return to indoor theater involved masks and social distancing, as well as a stage without live actors and an audience seated onstage. It was a resounding success. 

But “Blindness” was a blip on the early summer radar. Most of the year was awash with streamed productions, particularly one-person shows. At Woolly Mammoth Theatre, out actor Ryan J. Haddad doesn’t hold back. In his refreshingly direct autographical one-man play “Hi, Are you Single?” 

In a January interview with the Blade, Haddad said, “The show begins with my shorts around my ankles and I’m rubbing the crotch of my boxer briefs, the audience sees my walker,” Haddad explains matter-of-factly. “I’m telling you from the start that these are the terms here. If you can’t get on board with me being disabled and horny AF then you’ll have a hard time with this play.” 

Other especially memorable streamed productions included Theater Alliance’s production of busy playwright Psalmayene 24’s “The Blackest Battle,” a revolutionary hip-hop musical that puts an original spin on urban violence. Ingeniously directed by Theater Alliance’s out artistic director Raymond O. Caldwell. 

The innovative work imagines a world where reparations have been paid to African Americans yet Black on Black violence rages on. But despite the bellicose atmosphere, two members of warring rap factions manage to fall in love.  

Throughout the summer months, Olney Theatre Center offered myriad, well -attended outdoor performances, including admission-free nights in August titled “Olney in Drag,” a two-part extravaganza where audiences were asked “enjoy a drink as these fabulous drag queens shine brighter than the stars in the evening sky.”

But the big story of latter 2021 was the citywide reopening of indoor performance venues brought about in large part by vaccinations and audience’s willingness to don masks and present proof of vaccination at the door. In addition to audiences, working theaters have mandated COVID-19 vaccinations for performers and theater staff. More theaters are expected to follow suit as they resume operation. 

When autumn rolled around, curtains went up. Arena Stage opened with “Toni Stone” (through Oct. 3). Written by Lydia R. Diamon, it’s the remarkable story of the first woman to play baseball in the Negro Leagues, also making her the first woman to play professionally in a men’s league in the 1950s. Signature Theatre reopened with a newly reimagined interpretation of “Rent” directed by Signature’s Matthew Gardiner. 

And in no time, national tours of big Broadway musicals busted into town with movies to musicals “Tootsie” and “Pretty Woman” (through Jan. 2) at the National and “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” and “Ain’t Too Proud” at the Kennedy Center.  

While many beloved holiday shows returned to familiar stages in December, some new works have arrived, too, including Studio Theatre’s “Flight” (through February), an immersive installation created by Scottish innovators Vox Motus and designed by Jamie Harrison. It’s described as “an invitation to bear witness to the personal stories of two of the 300,000 displaced children who make unaccompanied journeys every year,” “Flight” is the story orphaned brothers who set off on an arduous journey across Europe in search of freedom and safety. 

There are no live actors in this production. Audience members experience the play from individual booths wearing headphones and viewing a handcrafted diorama in which the story unfolds in intimate miniature. 

Despite herculean efforts, things aren’t entirely back to normal – far from it. Currently in New York, newly reopened Broadway shows are cancelling performances citing backstage outbreaks of coronavirus and variants as the culprit. How things play out in our town in the coming year, remains to be seen.

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