December 31, 2015 at 12:17 pm EST | by Patrick Folliard
YEAR IN REVIEW 2015: theater (A highly royal year)
theater, gay news, Washington Blade

Jefferson Farber shows off his wares in Arena’s hit ‘Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.’ (Photo courtesy Arena)

The year in theater was rife with firsts and reprises, political intrigue, laughs and strained relations. And a lot of it was LGBT related.

Last winter, acclaimed out actor André De Shields played Stool Pigeon, a street preacher, in Arena Stage’s compelling production of August Wilson’s “King Hedley II.” At 69, De Shields was finally acting in one of the late great Wilson’s plays.

“Because we were contemporaries and both African American, people are surprised to hear it took so long. I’d wanted to, but had simply been given the opportunity,” De Shields said.

The story of an ex-con who against all odds returns to his old neighborhood attempting to rebuild his life by selling stolen refrigerators to finance a business venture, “King Hedley II” is the ninth play in Wilson’s 10-part play cycle set in Pittsburgh’s hardscrabble Hill District. De Shields who created the title role in “The Wiz” on Broadway in 1975 enjoyed playing Stool Pigeon.

“He is the fool. And like the fool in ‘King Lear,’ Pigeon is the conscience of the king and an outlier. I love to play an outlier.” He also noted an absence of gay characters in Wilson’s cycle. “I’m not condemning him. I’m reporting. His plays are relentlessly heterosexual, and that’s cool.”

Another out actor found a great role on D.C.’s waterfront this year. Long before playing Hollywood boy toy Spike in Arena’s production of Christopher Durang’s Chekhov-inspired comedy “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” Jefferson Farber had his sights set on the showy role, seeking out new productions and auditioning when he could. Ultimately cast in his own back yard, Farber was terrific as the self-absorbed, frequently shirtless aspiring actor.

The year offered up varied crown heads. In the cold of winter, Folger Theatre presented Peter Oswald’s sharp and celebrated new translation of German playwright Friedrich Schiller “Mary Stuart” (1800), the enthralling drama about the decades-long rivalry between England’s Queen Elizabeth I and her ill-fated cousin Queen Mary of Scotland. The compelling production was helmed by esteemed director Richard Clifford (the longtime partner of actor Sir Derek Jacobi). Out actor Holly Twyford superbly assayed Elizabeth in all her vain but insecure and wily glory.

And in the heat of the summer, Synetic Theater, the award-winning movement-based company located in Crystal City, remounted its playful, sexy and silent adaptation of Shakespeare’s comedy “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Painted blue from top to toe, out actor Alex Mills reprised his memorable turn as mischievous sprite Puck. And Helen Hayes Award-winning actor Philip Fletcher played Oberon, the Fairy King, locked in sexually charged battle with his queen, Tatiana (Irina Tsikurishvili).

The year included some Broadway royalty too. In February, Chita Rivera brought her fabulous one-woman show to Mclean’s Alden Theatre. The 80-something triple threat seriously wowed audiences with the songs (and dance) she made famous in shows like “West Side Story,” “Bye, Bye, Birdie,” “The Rink,” “Chicago” and “Kiss of the Spider Woman.”

The politics on stage imitated life, well, sort of. Woolly Mammoth premiered gay playwright Robert O’Hara’s “Zombie: the American,” a wild and convoluted new dark comedy inspired by an after-hours visit to the White House. Part science fiction and part Jacobean drama, “Zombie” is set in America 2063 — the East has been lost to great floods and the White House has relocated to Mount Rushmore where its residents are America’s first openly gay president (Sean Meehan) and his unfaithful first gentleman (James Seol) who’s having an affair with a complying clone. Out actor Sarah Marshall played the president’s glowering secretary of state.

Signature Theatre’s out artistic director Eric Schaeffer staged “The Fix,” a reworked but still predictable pop-rock musical chronicling the woes of a fictional American political dynasty.

The Book of Mormon’s” Mark Evans played the family’s square-jawed prodigal scion at odds with his mother fiercely ambitious mother (Christine Sherrill) and closeted gay uncle (Lawrence Redmond).

Gala Hispanic Theatre mounted a searing, modern-feeling of out playwright Federico García Lorca’s “Yerma” helmed by out Spanish director José Luis Arellano García. Mabel del Pozo passionately assayed the title character, a childless Andalusian peasant raging against the oppression of a loveless marriage and repressive society. Handsome out actor Eric Robledo played Juan, the cold husband that Yerma’s father chose for her.

This year introduced the ambitious and successful Women’s Voices Theater Festival, designed to spotlight the scope of new plays being written by women and the range of professional theater being produced in the area with more than 50 local professional companies presenting at least one world premiere of a play by a female playwright throughout September and October. Shakespeare Theatre Company contributed “Salomé” (more royal strife!), adapted and gorgeously staged Yaël Farber. Farber drew on ancient biblical and pagan texts, as well as Oscar Wilde’s landmark mystery play to create her provocative, exceedingly watchable piece.

Olney Theatre Center’s offering was the dramedy “Bad Dog” by out playwright and TV writer Jennifer Hoppe-House. Out actor Holly Twyford played flawed but likable Molly Drexler, a writer who after 10 years clean and sober falls off the wagon and drives her Prius into the home she shares with her wife. When her fairly dysfunctional family gathers with suggestions on how Molly might fix herself, things go from bad to worse. Imagine that.

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