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FALL ARTS PREVIEW 2017: Vastly queer D.C. theater personnel pushing new envelopes this fall

From an ‘Act of God’ to ‘The Devil’s Music’

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Fall Theater season, Chris Lane, gay news, Washington Blade

Chris Lane in ‘Word Becomes Flesh’ at Alliance Theater. (Photo by C. Stanley Photography)

The fall theater season promises an especially diverse mix of classics, innovative new works and some exciting instances of non-traditional casting. And as always, the productions are fueled in large part by LGBT talent and energy.

Mosaic Theater Company (mosaictheater.org) presents “The Devil’s Music: The Life & Blues of Bessie Smith” through Sept. 24. This bawdy, bluesy one-woman piece on the life of a unapologetically bisexual singing legend features an extraordinarily drawn performance by Miche Braden.

At GALA Hispanic Theatre (galatheatre.org) out director Jose Carrasquillo is staging “Don Juan Tenorio, the Infamous Seducer of All Times” (through Oct. 1) by out playwright Nando López (author of GALA’s Helen Hayes Award-winning “Yerma”). It’s a new, high-voltage adaptation of the legendary lover’s tale. The cast includes Iker Lastra, Luz Nicolás and out actor Carlos Castillo.

Factory 449: a theater collective (factory449.org) presents the hotly anticipated production of Cordelia Lynn’s “Lela & Co.” (through Oct. 1). Based on a true story, the play follows 14-year-old Lela (celebrated local actor Felicia Curry) as she marries and is relocated to an unnamed war-torn country where she finds herself isolated, locked up and eventually enslaved. Out actor/director Rick Hammerly directs.

Signature Theatre’s (sigtheatre.org) is kicking the season off with an exquisite production of Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music” (though Oct. 8). It’s a skillfully performed farce with a gorgeously sung score. The cast features out actors Holly Twyford, Bobby Smith and Will Gartshore. Signature’s out artistic director Eric Schaeffer directs.

Baltimore’s excellent Everyman Theatre (everymantheatre.org) is presenting David Henry Hwang’s intriguing “M. Butterfly” (through Oct. 8) featuring out actor Bruce Nelson as closeted French diplomat Rene Gallimard who falls in love with opera diva Song Liling (out actor Vichet Chum) who’s in fact a man masquerading as a woman. The Tony Award-winning play first opened on Broadway in 1988 and is now undergoing a revival there.

Studio Theatre (studiotheatre.org) presents Dominique Morisseau’s “Skeleton Crew” (through Oct. 8). The action focuses on a tight-knit group of workers at one of the last auto-stamping plants in Detroit who are forced to consider an uncertain future. Patricia McGregor directs.

Theater Alliance (theateralliance.com) is remounting its acclaimed Helen Hayes Award-winning production of “Word Becomes Flesh” (through Oct. 8). Using spoken word, stylized movement, tableau and music, an ensemble delivers a series of letters from a man to his unborn son, documenting his range of emotions, fears and expectations. The cast features out actors Chris Lane, Clayton Pelham, Jr. and Justin Weaks.

Woolly Mammoth opens its season with Alistair Beaton’s translation of Swiss playwright Max Frisch’s comedic reflection on fascism and communism “The Arsonists” (through Oct. 8). Directed by Michael John Garcés, the production features Woolly artistic director Howard Shalwitz in a return to the stage and company members including Kimberly Gilbert and Emily Townley.

Olney Theatre Center (olneytheatre.org) and Round House Theatre (roundhousetheatre.org) are co-producing “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first Broadway musical, “In the Heights” (through Oct. 15). Set to hip hop, rap and salsa, it’s the inspiring story of immigrants striving to make it in New York City’s Washington Heights neighborhood. The cast features out actor Robin de Jesús (an original Broadway cast member). Marcos Santana directs and choreographs.

Constellation Theatre Company (constellationtheatre.org) opens its season with Andrew Lippa’s “The Wild Party” (Sept. 21-Oct. 29). Set in Prohibition-era Manhattan, this tale of passion, flappers and romance features an exciting score including jazz, vaudeville and gospel numbers. Constellation’s artistic director Allison Arkell Stockman directs.

Ford’s Theatre (fords.org) presents Arthur Miller’s classic play “Death of a Salesman” (Sept. 22-Oct. 22). Esteemed actor Craig Wallace, who’s black, stars as the beleaguered Willy Loman, a part typically played by white actors. Kimberly Schraf plays Willy’s wife Linda and Danny Gavigan and Thomas Keegan are sons Happy and Biff, respectively. Out actor Michael Russotto plays Willy’s friend Charley. Stephen Rayne directs.

At Shakespeare Theatre Company (shakespearetheatre.org) out artistic director Michael Kahn returns to the work of Harold Pinter with a to direct a double bill of short plays, “The Collection” and “The Lover” (Sept. 26-Oct. 29). STC writes: “In Pinter’s darkly comic world of revealing silences and pregnant pauses, the characters and audience never know quite where they stand, embracing reality and fantasy with equal conviction.”

At Forum Theatre (forum-theatre.org) in Silver Spring, Michael Dove is directing the great Caryl Churchill’s “Love and Information” (Sept. 28-Oct. 21).

Also at Signature (sigtheatre.org) out actor Tom Story plays the title role in the D.C.-area premiere of David Javerbaum’s irreverent comedy “An Act of God” (Oct. 3-Nov. 26). Longtime head writer for TV’s “The Daily Show,” Javerbaum riffs on Biblical passages and divine intervention.

Olney Theatre (olneytheatre.org) is also presenting “Our Town” (Oct. 4-Nov. 12). Penned by the late Thornton Wilder who was gay, the American classic focuses on young couple George and Emily and their typical yet profound life experiences in small town Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire. This promising production, directed by Aaron Posner, incorporates traditional Japanese Bunraku-style puppets into the cast. Out actor Jon Odom plays Stage Manager, the play’s narrator.

For two nights only, the Kennedy Center (kennedy-center.org) presents “Wilderness” (Oct 12-15), a new multimedia documentary theater work. It’s derived from the real-life stories of six families exploring issues of mental health, addiction and gender and sexual identity and features an evocative folk-rock score, video projections and emotionally charged movement.

And for a substantially longer stay, the Kennedy Center hosts the latest tour of “The Book of Mormon” (Oct. 24-Nov. 19). Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s Tony Award-winning musical follows the adventures of a mismatched pair of missionaries, sent far from home to spread the Good Word.

At Arena Stage (arenastage.org) out director Alan Paul is staging American musical theater classic “The Pajama Game” (Oct. 27-Dec. 24). A strike at the pajama factory sets off a battle of the sexes. The score includes hot favorites “Steam Heat” and “Hernando’s Hideaway.” The cast includes Edward Gero and the making her Arena debut Broadway’s Donna McKechnie who created the part of Cassie in “A Chorus Line.”

At National Theatre (nationaldc.org), Tina Fey’s “Mean Girls” (Oct. 31-Dec. 3) makes its world premiere before heading to Broadway. The new musical is based on Fey’s screenplay for the same-titled hit film.

Out director Steven Scott Mazzola and Reenie Codelka are co-directing “Jaques Brel: Songs From His World” (Nov. 4-19) starring Byron Jones for the In Series (inseries.org). The cabaret features the legendary Belgian singer/songwriter’s personal yet political works from the ‘50s and ‘60s.

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Theater

‘Hadestown’ comes to the Kennedy Center

Levi Kreis discusses return to live theater

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Levi Kreis is an out actor who plays Hermes in the national tour of ‘Hadestown’ soon opening at the Kennedy Center. (Photo courtesy of Levi Kreis)

Hadestown
Through Oct. 31
The Kennedy Center
$45.00 – $175.00
Kennedy-center.org
For Covid-19 safety regulations go to Kennedy-center.org/visit/covid-safety/

Early in September at New York’s Walter Kerr Theatre, out singer/actor Levi Kreis was in the audience for the long-awaited Broadway reopening of “Hadestown,” Anaïs Mitchell’s rousing musical reimagining of the Orpheus myth in which the legendary Greek hero descends into the underworld to rescue his lover Eurydice. 

After almost 18 months of pandemic-induced closure, the Tony Award-winning folk opera was back and the house was full. In a recent phone interview, Kreis describes the evening as “love-filled, and electrifying and emotional after such a difficult time.” Now, Kreis is onstage in the national tour of “Hadestown,” currently launching at the Kennedy Center. As Hermes, the shape-shifting god of oratory, Kreis is both narrator and chaperone to the story’s young lovers. 

A Tennessee native, Kreis, 39, has triumphantly survived turbulent times including a harrowingly prolonged coming out experience that included six years of conversion therapy, education disruptions, and music contract losses. He officially came out through his acclaimed album “One of the Ones” (2006), which features a collection of piano vocals about past boyfriends. And four years later, he splendidly won a Tony Award for originating the role of rock and roll wild man Jerry Lee Lewis in the rockabilly musical “Million Dollar Quartet.” 

Throughout much of the pandemic, Kreis leaned into his own music and found ways to reconnect with his largely gay fan base. But he’s happy to now be touring, noting that all the “Hadestown” cast have been hungering to perform before a real live audience.

When not on the road, he’s based in New York City with his husband, classical-crossover recording artist Jason Antone. 

WASHINGTON BLADE: Hermes is the same role for which André De Shields—the brilliant African American actor, also gay, and some decades your elder won a Tony and has resumed playing on Broadway, right?

LEVI KREIS: That’s right. It’s really a testament to the creative team. Rather than laying us over what Broadway created. They’re creating a tour that’s uniquely different; still true to the beauty of the story but with a different flavor. 

BLADE: What attracted you to the part?

KREIS: First, I fell in love with the show. My own musical sensibilities understand the origins of where this music comes from. It’s very bluesy and gospel. Southern and rootsy. And that’s everything I’ve created in my career as a singer/songwriter.

BLADE: With your life experience, do you feel called to mentor?

KREIS: The biggest effort I’ve given to this narrative is being a pioneer of the out-music movement starting in 2005 which was a moment when gay artists were not signed to major labels. I want through eight major labels—when they found out I was gay things always went south. 

It’s been amazing to be a voice in LGBTQ media when no one was speaking about these things. It’s popular now, but back when it mattered it was a lot harder to start my career as an openly gay artist and speak about these issues rather than keep quiet, cash in, and only then come out. 

BLADE: Where did that nerve come from?

KREIS: Less about nerve and more about being beaten down. How many things have to happen before you give up and decide to be honest?  

BLADE: For many theatergoers, “Hadestown” will be their return to live theater. Other than it being visionary and remarkably entertaining, why would you recommend it? 

KREIS: We need encouragement right now. But we also need art that facilitates a lot of important conversation about what’s happening in the world. This has both elements.  

“Hadestown” is not a piece of art that you easily forget. You’re going to walk out of the theater with a story that sticks with you. You’ll realized that your own voice matters. There’s a part in the show, Orpheus’ song, when the gods encourage him to get the balance of the world back again by telling him that his voice matters. 

BLADE: Is it timely?

KREIS: Art is here to change the world. And this piece of art hits the nail right on the head. I’m a purist when it comes to art and song. There’s a reason why we do it. people are listening now in a way they haven’t listened before. To miss that is to miss the role of society, I think. 

BLADE: And going forward? 

KREIS: It’s going to be interesting. We could double down on super commercialized theater or we may decide to really go the other direction and reclaim innovation. That remains to be seen. 

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‘Broken Fantasies’ showcases LGBTQ actors of color

SMYAL-backed production at Atlas Performing Arts Center on Oct. 16

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'Broken Fantasies' cast (Photo courtesy of Breaking Ground)

Broken Fantasies
Oct. 16
Atlas Performing Arts Center
1333 H Street, NE
$5-$10
Atlasarts.com

In “Broken Fantasies” (a new offering from Breaking Ground), young LGBTQAI+ actors of color perform scenes taken from their actual lives. Issues addressed include racism, homelessness, sexual abuse, substance abuse and coming out.

Due to the pandemic, last year Breaking Ground’s annual offering was streamed online, but now a new SMYAL-backed production will be performed live for one night only on Oct. 16 at Atlas Performing Arts Center.

Breaking Ground’s out artistic director AJ King, says “Broken Fantasies” uses familiar fairytales (“Three Little Pigs,” “Cinderella,” etc.) to tell powerful, not always easy, stories. In seven to eight vignettes, the tales unfold on a minimal stage, and in addition to dialogue, the seventeen-person cast employs music, poetry and dance to express their experiences.

Founded by King in 2014 in response to the need for expression in the arts as a vehicle for social change, Breaking Ground utilizes theater and performing arts to detail the lives, challenges and journeys of LGBTQAI+ of color in the DMV.

In 2016, SMYAL became the program’s fiscal partner, and the same year, Breaking Ground received an award from the Obama White House for Champions of Change, solidifying their game in the arts community.

King, 32, was drawn to theater during middle and high school in Herndon, Va., and later became involved in programs combining social justice and the arts. He wasn’t a trained director when he founded Breaking Ground but after seven years, King says, he’s found his footing “Still, it remains challenging. Each year there’s a different cast with varied energy, stories and personalities.”

King explains, the cast writes scripts from interviews with other cast members. Sometimes the stories end happily, sometimes not. But without saccharine resolutions, the scenes offer options for audience members who might identify with the problems presented onstage.

“It’s a lot. Cast members have to trust co-actors with their stories and then allow their stories to go onstage,” he adds.

Cast member Eli Barton, 24, says, “The process of sharing your story is surreal at first. It takes courage. But you learn to look at yourself and be gentle about your situation. And when the audience relates to the experience, you understand that your story can really help others.”

Last year, Barton, who is bisexual, played a trans man. But in “Broken Fantasies,” she plays a straight supportive sister who strives to help her gay brother find his voice after the death of their mother. The vignette also involves women empowerment, a history of sexual abuse, and finding a way to navigate growing up a Christian household.

“Acting with other openly LGBTQIA+ is a blessing,” adds Barton. “It’s given me more exposure to the umbrella of the rainbow and allowed me to meet amazing artists. I feel safe and unguarded with them.”

King encourages all stripes of people to attend: “As an audience member, during the performance you put a mirror up to yourself. There may be something relatable, tangible or abstract, or an opportunity for learning and healing. Following a show, it’s not unusual for audience members to say, ‘That’s exactly what I went through and it was the first time I ever saw it portrayed on stage.’”

“And you don’t have to be LGBTQIA+ to relate,” he adds. “The issues covered transcend race, sexuality, gender expression—we deal with things that can be found in every family.”

Theater patrons are required to wear masks and present proof of vaccination.

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‘Doña Rosita’ marks reunion of three Spaniards at GALA

An excellent cast and dynamic staging elevate stellar production

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Ariel Texidó and Mabel del Pozo in Doña Rosita la soltera. (Photo by Daniel Martínez)

Doña Rosita la soltera
Through Oct. 3
GALA Hispanic Theatre
3333 14th Street, NW
$35-$48
galatheatre.org

In the 1930s, Federico García Lorca, 20th century Spain’s greatest poet and dramatist, was writing plays about a woman’s place in the world. In fact, Lorca, who was gay, was exploring women’s souls in an unprecedented way for Spain, or anywhere really. His insight is frequently credited, in part, to his sexuality.  

Now at GALA Hispanic Theatre, Lorca’s “Doña Rosita la soltera (Doña Rosita the Spinster)” tells the story of Rosita, an unmarried woman who subsists on definite hopes of marrying a long-distance fiancé. Whether it’s to keep the populace at bay or to feed a romantic fantasy, isn’t completely clear, but years — decades, in fact — pass, and very little changes. 

Set in the conservative world of middle-class Granada (Lorca’s native province), the 100-minute play, performed in Spanish with English surtitles, spans the 1880s through the early 1900s, constrictive years for women in Spain. When Lorca wrote “Doña Rosita” in 1935, on the eve of the Spanish Civil War, he appreciated the recent gains made surrounding women’s rights and foresaw further, imminent progress. Then, just a year later at age 38 and at the top of his game, Lorca was unlawfully arrested and murdered by Franco’s rightwing thugs. All was lost. 

Adapted by out writer Nando López, GALA’s offering strays from Lorca’s original in various ways: there are fewer characters, and the older Rosita serves more as a narrator, interacting with her younger self. Lorca’s glorious poetry remains mostly intact. 

Still, the title character’s tale is clear: Orphaned as a child, Rosita (Mabel del Pozo) goes to live with her devoted aunt (Luz Nicolás) and uncle (Ariel Texidó), an avid gardener. As a young woman, she falls in love with her first cousin (also played by Texidó), and they’re engaged. Despite the fiancé leaving Spain to join his aging parents on their sizeable farm in Tucumán, Argentina, the young lovers remain betrothed. 

Domestic life goes on. With the support of relations, and the family’s devoted but skeptical housekeeper (Laura Alemán), Rosita assembles a first-rate trousseau, and the affianced pair continue to exchange heartfelt letters. At one point, there’s talk of marriage by proxy – an idea scoffed at by some of the household and neighbors. 

The sameness of the unchanging household is offset by out director José Luis Arellano’s dynamic staging, an excellent cast, actors nimbly changing characters onstage with the help of a hat or cravat fished out of a chest of drawers, Jesús Díaz Cortés’ vibrant lighting, and incidental music from David Peralto and Alberto Granados. Alemán, so good as the shrewd housekeeper from the country (a place Lorca respected) also assays a spinster who comes to tea. And Catherine Nunez characterizes feminine youth, scornful of Rosita’s unattached status. Delbis Cardona is versatile as the worker and Don Martin, a teacher charged with educating the ungrateful offspring of Granada’s rich. 

After a rare outdoor excursion to the circus, Rosita wrongly claims to have seen her would-be groom working with the troupe, but the housekeeper is quick to point out that the well-built puppeteer is by no means her stoop-shouldered barefoot fiancé, adding that more and more Rosita is seeing her faraway love in the face of the men about Granada. Swiftly, the aunt reminds the housekeeper to know her place – she’s allowed to speak, but not bark.

Visually, the passage of time is indicated by the hemline and cut of Rosita’s dresses (designed by Silvia de Marta), and the mid-play dismantling of the set (also de Marta), opening the family’s rooms and garden to what lies beyond. 

After intermission, six more years have passed and the narrative is more straightforward and patently compelling. Rosita’s aunt, now a pissed-off, generally miserable widow in reduced circumstances, is packing up to move. It’s been hard running a house, she says. And it’s harder scrubbing the floors, replies the faithful housekeeper. 

And it’s here that del Pozo shines with Rosita’s revelatory monologue, a searingly true, passionately delivered speech worth the price of a ticket. 

“Doña Rosita” marks a collaborative reunion of three Spaniards – writer López, director Arellano, and actor del Pozo – who all worked on GALA’s 2015, multi-Helen Hayes Award-winning production of Lorca’s politically controversial “Yerma,” the story of another complicated Spanish woman. 

GALA Hispanic Theatre safety policy

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