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Straight-washing history

Tight MetroStage production explores shady business of yesteryear

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The Letters, gay news, Washington Blade
The Letters, gay news, Washington Blade

Susan Lynskey in ‘The Letters.’ (Photo by Chris Banks; courtesy MetroStage)

‘The Letters’

 

Through June 14

 

MetroStage

 

1201 North Royal St, Alexandria

 

$50-55

 

703-548-9044

 

With its deliciously taut production of “The Letters,” MetroStage brings a little Hitchcockian suspense to Old Town.

Set in Soviet Russia circa 1931, the two character play by John W. Lowell pits boss against underling in a tense game of cat and mouse. The trouble begins when Anna, a 40-ish editor employed at an unnamed government agency, is charged with redacting words from a great composer’s love letters to his boyfriends.

The state doesn’t want it known that one of Russia’s national treasures was gay. It’s soon discovered that someone from Anna’s department has been copying the scandalous letters in question, and the higher ups want to locate and destroy the missing copies and punish the parties involved.

When Anna (Susan Lynskey) is summoned to the big boss’ office, experience tells her that such an invitation can only end badly. During the prolonged meeting, her boss — known simply as the Director (Michael Russotto) — informs Anna that she’s being promoted to top editor.  Anna is reluctant to accept her new position. And of course she’s right to be wary — there’s a catch. The Director wants information and he’s willing to do anything to get it.

What follows is a slow-building battle between the Director, a former cavalry officer whose jovial veneer covers a scary bully with an enormous chip on his shoulder, and a seemingly colorless functionary. But don’t let the mousy demeanor fool you. Beneath Anna’s gray cardigan beats a complex heart — sensitive, cynical and more than a little conflicted. And despite the power imbalance, she proves a formidable adversary. Still, widowed Ann must tread carefully. Her job is her only security and in her world, the gulag (or worse) looms as a possible outcome.

“The Letters” premiered in Los Angeles in 2009. Lowell drew inspiration from the real events surrounding letters penned by Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (“The Nutcracker,” “Swan Lake”) whose sexually frank correspondences were destroyed by Russian officials. Most biographers contend that Tchaikovsky and his brother were both gay and that the composer counted his longtime valet and an adult nephew among his love interests. In Lowell’s play, the composer goes unnamed. And there is no detail regarding the passages that Anna and her colleagues are called upon to erase other than to say they’re unabashed expressions of the subject’s sexuality and are pornographic by the day’s standards.

MetroStage’s producing artistic director Carolyn Griffin has a knack for finding interesting plays that audiences aren’t likely to see elsewhere around town. “The Letters” is a fine example and under the perceptive staging of out director John Vreeke, the brisk, 75-minute work is short but satisfying. Vreeke helps to elicit terrific performances from his Russotto and Lynskey. The talented pair has worked together before. Their history includes MetroStage’s U.S. premiere production of “The Girl in the Goldfish Bowl.”

Placed at an angle with a huge open window suspended overhead, Giorgos Tsappas’ set suggests a generic boss’ office with the big desk and a pair of vinyl covered chairs — government-issue furniture befitting the department head. It’s sinister in its banality.

“The Letters” is drawn from a specific time and place, but could certainly take place anywhere today. It’s a timely piece, particularly when matters of overzealous and illegal surveillance and loss of personal freedoms are being debated here and now.

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Theater

New Studio Theatre production explores misery of addiction

Slogging through the work of recovery in ‘People, Places & Things’

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Kristen Bush in ‘People, Places & Things.’ (Photo by Margot Schulman)

‘People, Places & Things’
Through Dec. 11
Studio Theatre
1501 14th St., N.W.
$65-$95
Studiotheatre.org

Meet Emma, working actor and addict.  

After a lot of hard partying and an onstage collapse, the relapsing heroine of Duncan Macmillan’s “People, Places & Things” devises a sort of strategy. She’ll do a short stint in rehab and get back to work as soon as possible, sort of breeze in and breeze out. But things don’t quite pan out as planned.  

In Macmillan’s superbly written and aptly named work (the title references a recovery slogan about triggers and relapse), the English playwright takes a lucid and, at turns, funny and mordantly perceptive look into the misery of addiction and the vicissitudes of recovery. At the center of his work is Emma — dishonest, witty, very toxic, but in spite of everything, likeable.  

At Studio Theatre, director David Muse succeeds in leading an inventive design team and strong cast, particularly Kristen Bush as wily Emma, in bringing this not unfamiliar but compellingly told tale to life. 

After a major professional screw up, (a wasted Emma implodes during a performance of Chekhov’s “The Seagull”), she voluntarily checks into a British clinic. At intake she’s still high and in an uncharacteristically honest moment, readily admits to having recently indulged in a panoply of pills, weed, coke, speed, and ibuprofen washed down with gin and a good bottle of Rioja.

Unsold on the 12 steps, she’s resistant. Still the show must go on – loads of therapy (one-on-one and group) and role-playing sessions ensue. The medical professionals, staff, and patients are played effectively by Nathan Whitmer, Lise Bruneau, Tessa Klein, Maboud Ebrahimzadeh, Emily Erickson, Derek Garza, Lynette R. Freeman, and the excellent David Manis. 

Jeanne Paulsen plays Emma’s helpful doctor and later and more startling, her mother. Jahi Kearse adds an inspiring presence as a fellow addict.

Watching an addict slog through the yeoman work of recovery, and in this case an unenthusiastic patient’s passage from detox to therapy to departure, isn’t anything new; but here, the unfolding journey feels fresh despite or maybe due to the protagonist’s dearth of pink cloud elation. There’s also a real true-to-lifeness about it. 

Studio’s new Victor Shargai Theatre has been configured as alley staging (it’s like a catwalk with banked seating on either side), making for an intimate experience. Debra Booth’s institutional grey set changes fairly seamlessly and entertainingly to different spaces, all interconnected in Emma’s recovery – a stage, an after-hours club evoking both allure and dread, offices, therapy rooms, and bedrooms. 

Lighting by Andrew Cissna and Lindsay Jones’s music contribute to a sometimes-unsettling mood. 

Macmillan wrote “People, Places & Things” with a meaty female role in mind. It premiered at London’s National Theatre in 2015 and moved to New York a couple of years later. The production proved a great success for everyone involved, including Denise Gough who created the role of Emma. Bush is garnering a similar reaction at Studio. 

As the action moves steadily toward an ending, contributing factors regarding Emma’s dysfunction are revealed – cold family, a brother’s death. Some definite headway is made. Still, there’s no denying that over turbulent years, she’s left some very hurt and disappointed colleagues and family in her frenzied drug fueled wake. 

The actor/addict leaves rehab markedly less messy. Reentering the world as a different Emma, she lands at the home of her unsympathetic parents, not the most cushiony place for a sober re-launch. 

Her future is unclear, and like her sobriety, can’t be taken for granted. 

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Theater

D.C. theaters offer something for every holiday taste

From ‘Hip Hop Nutcracker’ to plenty of Scrooge productions

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The Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington presents ‘The Holiday Show.’ (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

For many Washington area theatergoers, it wouldn’t be the holidays without seeing an old chestnut or two. At the same time, newer productions are rapidly becoming yuletide traditions in their own right, and with every unfolding holiday season, the DMV scene is additionally gifted with fresh and exciting works. 

It’s a lot. Here’s a sampling. 

National Theatre presents “A Magical Cirque Christmas” (Dec. 16-18), an evening of varied performers and spectacular double-jointed cirque artists accompanied by your favorite holiday music performed live. Mistress of Magic Lucy Darling hosts this exciting and enchanting holiday entertainment for the entire family (well, almost, children under four are strictly verboten). Broadwayatthenational.com

At Synetic Theater in Crystal City, it’s “Snow Maiden” (Dec. 1 – 23) based on a 19th century folk tale about a lonely man who creates a woman out of snow and created by Helen Hayes Award-winning choreographer and Synetic co-founder Irina Tsikurishvili. Synetictheater.org 

In Falls Church, Creative Cauldron is conjuring magic with “The Christmas Angel” (Dec. 2-18). Married collaborators Matt Conner and Stephen Gregory Smith’s musical is based on a little-known 1910 novel by Abbey Farwell Brown about a lonely woman who finds happiness through a box of old toys. Creativecauldron.org

The season now upon us offers myriad opportunities to experience Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” the redemptive tale of Ebenezer Scrooge, perhaps the most celebrated Christmas character after Santa, Rudolph, and the baby Jesus.

Historic Ford’s Theatre version of “A Christmas Carol” (through Dec. 31) has been a popular Washington tradition for more than 30 years. The beautifully produced and consistently well-acted take on the Dickens’ classic (originally conceived by Michael Baron), features Craig Wallace reprising Scrooge, who after a night of ghostly visits, rediscovers Christmas joy. fords.org 

At Olney Theatre, Paul Morello lovingly revisits his celebrated take on the “A Christmas Carol” (through Jan. 1). In his solo adaptation of Dickens’ ghost story (created and performed by Morello), he brings to life more than 40 different characters including Scrooge, the entire Cratchit family, the specters, and numerous celebrants.

Olney is also reviving its holiday musical success “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast” through Jan. 1, and reprising roles in the tale as old time terrific are out actor Jade Jones as Belle and Evan Ruggiero as the Beast. Out actor Bobby Smith plays Lumiere. Marcia Milgrom Dodge directs. Olneytheatre.org

In various books and interviews, movie star Bette Davis recounts how as a young girl, she most looked forward to finding theater tickets under the tree (a Davis family Christmas tradition). Perhaps you know a youth or adult, who’d like receive tickets this holiday season? The Kennedy Center Opera House is tempting audiences with a traveling production of the Broadway blockbuster “Wicked” (Dec. 8-Jan. 22), the much-loved prequel of the “Wizard of Oz.” Kennedy-center.org 

Signature Theatre adds to the holiday fun with “Into the Woods” (through Jan. 29), Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s unique musical spin on treasured fairytales and “happily-ever-after.” The large, uber-talented cast features — among other big names — Nova Y. Payton, out actor David Merino, and Maria Rizzo. Matthew Gardiner directs. Sig-theatre.org

Then there’s always “The Nutcracker.” Here are four from scores of local productions. 

The Washington Ballet presents its charming version at the gilded Warner Theatre through Dec. 30. With Tchaikovsky’s timeless music and splendid choreography by Septime Weber, this 1882 Georgetown-set production features historical figures including George Washington and King George III, along with the usual suspects like children, rats, fairies and a mysterious godfather. Washingtonballet.org

Bethesda’s Music Center at Strathmore presents “The Hip Hop Nutcracker” (Dec. 19-22), Tchaikovsky’s classic re-imagined with MC Kurtis Blow (“White Lines”). Strathmore.org  

And Kansas City Ballet’s celebrated seasonal tradition, “The Nutcracker,” is at the Kennedy Center through Nov. 27, so you’ll need to move fast. 

The beloved Puppet Co. located within Glen Echo Park presents its 34th annual “The Nutcracker” through Jan. 1. The delightful puppet show includes Tchaikovsky’s familiar music and the story of Clara and her prince, with some Puppet Co. nursery rhyme spin. (Recommended for ages 4+. Run time approximately 50 minutes.)

Running nearly concurrently at the Puppet Co. is “Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins” (Dec. 1-30). “Hershel just wants to celebrate Hanukkah with the community, but the Queen and King of the Goblins have forbidden the lighting of the candles. Can Hershel save the day and lift the curse for this shtetl (village)?” (Recommended ages 5+. Run time approximately 60 minutes.) Thepuppetco.org 

And for those who might find themselves all Nutcracker-ed out, Ballet Hispánico returns to the Kennedy Center with internationally renowned choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s “Doña Perón” (Nov. 30-Dec. 3), a truly exciting portrait of Eva “Evita” Perón. Kennedy-center.org 

And for something festive, edifying, and relaxed, try the National Symphony Orchestra’s “Ugly Sweater Holiday Concert” at The Anthem on Dec. 6. Go ahead, why not don something hideous and enjoy your favorite holiday songs? 

Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington is back with “The Holiday Show” (Dec. 3-11), an annual extravaganza that promises sparkly snow, tap dancers, and over-the-top costumes at their usual venue, the historic Lincoln Theatre in the U Street Corridor. Slated for the program are songs like “Sleigh Ride,” “Underneath the Tree,” “The 12 Rockin’ Days of Christmas,” “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” and “Hard Candy Christmas” performed by the full Chorus, soloists, all GMCW ensembles, and the GenOUT Youth Chorus. Gmcw.org 

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Theater

Poignant ‘Sanctuary City’ depicts two immigrants struggling to get ahead in America

Undocumented friends navigate post-9/11 New Jersey

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Hernán Angulo and María Victoria Martínez in Sanctuary City at Arena Stage.  (Photo by Margot Schulman)

‘Sanctuary City’
Through Nov. 27
Arena Stage
1101 Sixth St., S.W. 
$41-$95
Arenastage.org

As a kid growing up in San Juan, Puerto Rico, María Victoria Martínez was obsessed with musicals, Broadway shows like “West Side Story” and Disney movies were on nonstop rotation. She knew the scores by heart and longed to play not the ingenues or princesses, but rather character roles like “The Little Mermaid’s” villainous Ursula and Miss Hannigan, the comically bitter lush in “Annie.”

“Imitating the singers is how I learned English,” says Martínez, 30. It also ignited a passion for theater that ultimately lured her into show biz (though she doesn’t do musicals).

 After earning a bachelor’s degree from the University of Puerto Rico followed by a master’s degree from A.R.T. (American Repertory Theater Institute for Advanced Theater Training at Harvard University), she kicked off a career as a multifaceted actor. Martínez follows the work, but splits most her time between San Juan and New York City: “It’s my idea of a bicoastal existence,” she says. 

Currently Martínez, who identifies as queer, is at Arena Stage starring in Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Martyna Majok’s “Sanctuary City,” an Arena/Berkeley Repertory Theatre co-production directed by David Mendizábal with associate direction and transfer direction by Cara Hinh.

Set in Newark, N.J., not long after 9/11, a time when anti-immigrant sentiment was on the rise, the new work is a timely and poignant piece. Martínez and out actor Hernán Angulo play longtime undocumented friends (simply called G and B, respectively), struggling to get ahead in America, the only home they’ve ever known. 

Without giving too much away, adds Martínez, G’s position in the U.S. is more stable than B’s. Still, she’s willing to fight to help secure his fate. He is arguably her only friend. 

WASHINGTON BLADE: Would you describe your character, G, as the fierier of the two? 

MARĺA VICTORIA MARTĺNEZ: Yes. As I read the play, I definitely saw this ardent fire in G. When she feels safe the fire burns but she feels in danger, her fire is combustible and liable to burn everything down. G is the engine that tries to keep B going, to uplift him, to find ways for him to stay in the country. 

They share moments when they seem like brother and sister, sometimes friends, and even lovers. It’s left open for audience to interpret as they watch the play. It’s messy. And that’s what makes it good.

BLADE: Was it tough moving the production across country?

MARTĺNEZ: Transferring theaters was tricky – they’re very different spaces. In Berkeley we were in a black box almost in full round. Arena’s Kreeger Theater is proscenium, so we’ve had to flatten out our blocking. But in doing so we found new moments in the show. 

Audiences are different in every city. In California, there were certain moments in the show where audiences were really cracking up and here, we don’t hear a peep. But after all, theater is a living organism and moving gives new and different life.

BLADE: In “Sanctuary City,” you and Hernán Angulo play such incredibly close friends. How is that relationship offstage? 

MARTĺNEZ: We were so fortunate to have been cast together. We got along right off the bat and now we’re very close. I identify as queer and he identifies as a gay man. But it’s really our Latinidad (Latinness) that brought us together. And we both love to laugh a lot. When apart we Facetime and share Tik Toks and serious articles too. 

I’m Puerto Rican and he’s Mexican American from the Bay Area. I’m interested in Mexican culture. Spanish is my first language; and Hernán speaks Spanish, so there’s that too. 

BLADE: Have you witnessed the courage and pain of undocumented people firsthand?

MARTĺNEZ: In Puerto Rico most of the immigrants are Dominicans. We’re generally welcoming to them. But I have seen some bad things, and when I witness that aggression, it doesn’t make sense to me. I can’t understand blocking someone from seeking refuge. 

BLADE: Anything directed at you personally?

MARTĺNEZ: Yes, I experienced some unsettling xenophobia when Trump was first elected. I was still at A.R.T. and traveling home to San Juan. At the airport, I was speaking Spanish and a lady purposely bumped into me and told me to go back to my country. I hold a U.S. passport, so you can only imagine what happens to people who are more vulnerable. 

These things are really important to talk about. And I’m happy and proud to be doing the show in D.C. I think it gives it even more meaning. 

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