Through July 24
Olney Theatre Center
2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road
A frequently produced musical like “Evita” isn’t something you’d automatically connect with director Will Davis. Typically he’s attracted to physically adventurous new works, mostly plays, to which he can bring his interest in movement.
But when Olney Theatre’s out artistic director Jason Loewith asked if he’d be interested in directing Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s celebrated rock opera, Davis was intrigued.
“I told him all I knew about ‘Evita’ was the score’s big hit ‘Don’t Cry for Me Argentina.’ And much to Jason’s credit, he said that was great. He really wanted to see my take on the musical.”
Davis jokingly calls his production “a one-room Evita” — the action takes place entirely in a slightly dilapidated ballroom in La Casa Rosada, Argentina’s executive mansion. There are almost no props. He’s more interested in telling the story of Argentina’s ambitious yet ill-fated First Lady Eva Peron through Che Guevara’s eyes.
“Ultimately I said yes to the project because there’s an interesting tension. It’s really the story of Che,” Davis says. “He’s an unreliable narrator because he has opinions — not good — about her. Che is sad and blames Eva for all that is wrong with his country.”
Played by Robert Ariza (whom Davis describes as a real star) Che moves through the piece with the velocity of grief.
“Also the musical reduces its title character (Rachel Zampelli) to a saint and whore,” he says. “I wanted to complicate Eva and give her a little humanity back.”
Davis, who’s transgender, grew up in Northern California. He earned a bachelor’s degree in theater studies from DePaul University in Chicago and a master’s in directing from the University of Texas, Austin. His transition journey has been gradual. Prior to transitioning, he lived as a straight woman and was married to man whom he has since amicably divorced. While living as a woman, Davis came out as gay. And then about five years ago, he came out as transgender.
“For me, scarier than coming out was living as a woman. It was a fraught time for sure,” says Davis, 33. “Today I’m dealing with my masculinity and femininity. Finally I don’t feel like I’m walking through the world in female drag, which is how how I felt for most of my life.”
Earlier this year, Chicago’s prestigious American Theater Company named Davis its new artistic director. Because he’s a trailblazer, Davis is interested in being visible.
“It’s important that the theater community and the queer community know that there’s a light on at ATC.”
In the spirit of visibility Davis happily describes the physical aspects of his transition. He has undergone “top surgery,” an innocuous name for a double mastectomy which Davis describes as “a massive and very serious procedure.” He gets weekly male hormone injections. “I’ve willingly put myself through puberty for the second time as an adult. My hair is thinning, and I have to think more about cholesterol and heart health. On the upside, I’m close to having a decent amount of cute stubble.”
He says transition looks different for every person.
“Things like top surgery are cost prohibitive and unavailable to many. Some trans people may appear to be female but they identify as male. I don’t believe someone’s identity has to be signed off by the American Medical Association.”
In conversation, Davis is equal parts keen insight, compassion and humor — all qualities reflected in his work. He came to the attention of local audiences when he directed Olney Theatre’s well-received production of Andrew Hinderaker’s queer-themed, movement-infused, sports drama “Colossal.” Davis picked up a Helen Hayes Award for his efforts.
His experience of transitioning has not been one of “flipping the switch or checking the box.” Davis says. “I haven’t become a man. That would be magical thinking. What’s actually true is you are yourself and you’re always changing but the residue of your earlier life doesn’t get locked in a box and thrown in a river. I don’t feel somehow arrived. But what I do know is I’ve become a happier person. It’s been a transition into happiness.”