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Creepy ‘Handmaid’s Tale’ returns for equally good second season

‘Mad Men’ vet Elisabeth Moss returns to Emmy-winning role as Offred

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Handmaid's Tale, gay news, Washington Blade

Yvonne Strahovki and Joseph Fiennes in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale.’ (Photo courtesy Hulu)

Season two of “The Handmaid’s Tale” (premiering on Hulu on April 25) is off to a great start. As the series moves into uncharted territory, the suspense increases and the personal and political pressures become even more intense.

The series is based on Margaret Atwood’s monumental 1985 dystopian novel in which the United States is taken over by theocratic terrorists who establish the repressive Republic of Gilead. Environmental disasters have rendered most women infertile; the women who can still bear children are forced to become Handmaids (dressed in red), reproductive surrogates for the Commanders and their wives (dressed in blue).

Season one follows the outline of Atwood’s novel closely, although it zooms out from the first-person narrative of the Handmaid Offred to add the stories and perspectives of other characters. Bruce Miller’s masterful adaptation also expands Offred’s flashbacks of her life before Gilead.

Like the novel, season one ends with Offred (Elisabeth Moss) being forced into a van by the omnipresent guards, but season two opens with her arriving at an unexpected location, a stadium where Aunt Lydia (the magnificent Ann Dowd) has arranged a terrible punishment for the Handmaids who have defied her. The Aunts, dressed in brown, train the Handmaids and enforce their proper submissive behavior.

Episode one becomes largely a battle of wills between Offred and Aunt Lydia. Aunt Lydia has the fearful power of the state behind her, but Offred has powers of her own: her fierce will and the fact that she is pregnant. Both actresses won Emmy Awards for their outstanding performances in season one and their work in season two is even stronger and richer.

Forced into silence and stillness by the restrictive costume and strict decorum of the Handmaids, Moss creates a powerful portrait of an independent woman beaten into compliance. Through subtle gestures, penetrating close-ups of her expressive face and frequently acerbic voice-overs, Moss and her colleagues provide Offred with a rich inner life. Her performance as June Osborne (as Offred was known before the coup) is a stunning contrast.

As a representative of the oppressive new government, Dowd’s Aunt Lydia marshals both the might and righteousness of the new regime with great ferocity, but Miller and Dowd create a surprisingly multi-faceted character.

In addition to Moss and Dowd, the entire principal cast returns for the second season, including Joseph Fiennes as Offred’s Commander and Yvonne Strahovski as his long-suffering wife (who was ironically one of the architects of the revolution); Max Minghella as Nick Blaine, the Commander’s chauffeur and the father of Offred’s unborn baby; O.T. Fagbenle as June’s husband and Samira Wiley as her friend Moira, both of whom have finally escaped to Canada; and Alexis Bledsel (Emily/Ofglen), Madeline Brewer (Janine/Ofwarren) and Nina Kiri (Alma) as Offred’s fellow Handmaids.

Season two also introduces new characters: Bradley Whitford as Commander Joseph Lawrence, Clea Duvall as Emily’s wife, Cherry Jones as June’s mother Holly Osborne, and Marisa Tomei as a character whose identity has not yet been revealed. The new season also introduces a new location — the poisonous “Colonies,” where “Unwomen” are sent to clean up toxic waste.

Season two also focuses more on Mayday, the growing resistance to Gilead. As Offred wryly notes, “It’s their own fault. They should never have given us uniforms if they didn’t want us to be an army.”

“The Handmaid’s Tale” is a show that should not be missed. Besides the fascinating characters and gripping storylines, the series is a subtle examination of the mechanics or repression and the birth of a resistance movement. A timely tale, it is brave, bold, brutal and beautiful, sometimes all at the same time.

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Photos

PHOTOS: International LGBTQ Leaders Conference opening reception

Politicians and activists from around the world met and mingled at the JW Marriott

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Politicians and activists from around the world met and mingled at the JW Marriott. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The LGBTQ Victory Institute held an opening reception for the 2021 International LGBTQ Leaders Conference at the JW Marriott on Thursday.

(Washington Blade photos by Michael Key)

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Theater

Meet the husbands and creative partners behind ‘Christmas Angel’

A funny, redemptive world premiere with a diverse cast

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Stephen Gregory Smith and Matt Conner with pugs Edgar Allan Pug and Lord Byron.

The Christmas Angel
Dec. 9-19
Creative Cauldron
410 South Maple Avenue
Falls Church, VA 22046
Tickets:  $35. Students $20.
Masks and proof of vaccination are required
creativecauldron.org

“Ours is like a lava lamp,” says composer Matt Conner describing the collaborative creative process he shares with musical writing partner and husband Stephen Gregory Smith. “We move together in motion in a continual ebb and flow.” 

A couple for 23 years, married for eight, and making musicals together for 11, the talented pair’s current offering is “The Christmas Angel,” opening on Dec. 9 at Creative Cauldron in Fairfax. 

A musical adaptation of the same-named 1910 novel by Abbie Farwell Brown, it’s the story of Angelina Terry (Kanysha Williams), a wealthy embittered recluse who learns the lessons of Christmas from a box of old toys that she casts into the street. Also featured in the hour-long one-act are Ryan Sellers as Horton, Angelina’s butler, and Carl Williams who plays her brother. The angel and toys are brought to life by an ensemble of a dozen teens plucked from the company’s musical theater training program. 

Via phone from their home in Arlington, Smith and Conner shared thoughts on their new show and working style. In attendance are pug dogs Edgar Allan Pug and Lord Byron, whom they call Eddie and Byron in public – otherwise “it’s just too much,” says Conner whose ultimate fantasy involves living on a pug farm where he’d write music and present the occasional show.

Rather than finish each other’s sentences, the duo (both Helen Hayes Award winners – Smith for acting and Conner for directing) expound on one another’s thoughts.

While Conner composes the music, Smith writes the book and lyrics, and together they co-direct. “But there’s no end and beginning where my job ends and his begins,” says Smith. “What we do complements each other’s work.”

Still, there are differences. Smith’s approach is focused. He writes pages at night and edits in the morning. Conner’s method is more relaxed, preferring to sit at the keyboard and talk rather than writing things down. But throughout the creative process, there’s never a moment when the project isn’t on their mind. They can be watching TV or buying milk when an exciting idea pops up, says Conner. 

A clever nod to Dickens, the novel is more than just a female “Christmas Carol,” says Smith. And in some spots, he’s beefed up the 55-page book, fleshing out both storyline and characters including the toys whose shabby appearance belies a youthful confidence. 

He adds, “Every holiday season you go to the attic and pull down the box, or boxes in my case, of holiday decorations and it’s all old but it’s new. That’s the nostalgic feeling of toys from the attic that we’re trying to find through the show.”

The music is a combination of traditional carols performed by a hand bell chorus, and original Christmas songs that intentionally sound very familiar. The score includes songs “Don’t Hide Your Light,” “The Sweetest Gift,” and “Yestermore” – the moment when the past, present, and future come together. 

Also, there’s Angelina’s Bah! Humbug! number “Fiddlesticks,” her great renunciation of the holidays. She believes the world a disappointing place to be, and the sooner realized the better. 

Conner and Smith aren’t new to Creative Cauldron. Through the company’s Bold New Works project, the team was commissioned to write five world premiere musicals in just five years. The result was “The Turn of the Screw,” “Monsters of the Villa Diodati,” “Kaleidoscope,” “Witch” and “On Air.”

Judging from some of the titles and their slightly macabre content, it seems the duo was better poised to write for Halloween than Christmas, but nonetheless, they were commissioned. Creative Cauldron’s producing director Laura Connors Hull brought them the obscure yet charming book that surprisingly had never before been reworked for stage or celluloid, and the pair got to work last spring. 

Conner and Smith agree, “The show is a lot of things rolled up into one.”

Not only is it a funny, redemptive world premiere with a diverse cast, but it’s also a story largely unknown to today’s audiences. Additionally, the show boasts intergenerational appeal while holding messages about Christmas, family, and finding light when you’re in a darker place. 

More information about Conner and Smith, including links to their music and popular podcast “The Conner & Smith Show,” can be found on their terrific website at connersmithmusicals.com.   

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Books

‘Capote’s Women’ is catnip to older pop culture fans

Revisiting iconic author’s seven ‘swans’

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(Book cover courtesy of Putnam)

Capote’s Women
By Laurence Leamer
C.2021, Putnam $28/356 pages

Her lips are locked tight.

Your best friend knows all your secrets, and she’s keeping them; you told her things you had to tell somebody, and she’s telling nobody. You always knew you could trust her; if you couldn’t, she wouldn’t be your BFF. But as in the new book “Capote’s Women” by Laurence Leamer, what kind of a friend are you?

For months, Truman Capote had been promising a blockbuster.

Following his success with “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and “In Cold Blood,” he was “one of the most famous authors in the world” but he needed a career-booster. The novel he was writing, he teased, would be about “his swans,” seven wealthy, fashionable women who quite personified “beauty, taste, and manners.”

His first swan was Barbara “Babe” Paley, whom he’d met on a trip with the David Selznicks to Jamaica. For Capote, “Babe was the epitome of class,” simply “perfect” in every way; it helped that the famously gay writer was no threat to Paley’s “madly jealous” husband.

Babe’s “dearest friend” was Nancy “Slim” Keith, who quickly learned that if a lady wanted her confidences kept, she didn’t tell Capote anything. She shouldn’t have trusted Babe, either: When Slim left for a European trip, Babe asked if Slim’s husband could accompany Babe’s friend, Pamela Hayward, to a play.

Slim was aware of Pamela’s predatory reputation, but what could she say?

Of course, Pamela, another of Truman’s swans, stole Slim’s man, a scandal that Capote loved.

Gloria Guinness was highly intelligent, possibly enough to be a spy in Nazi Germany. Lucy “C.Z.” Guest was an upper-crust “elitist” with a “magical aura.” Marella Agnelli “was born an Italian princess”; Lee Radziwill, of course, was Jacqueline Kennedy’s sister.

Through the late 1960s, Capote claimed to be writing his masterpiece, his tour de force based on his swans, but several deadlines passed for it. He was sure Answered Prayers “would turn him once again into the most talked-about author in America.”

Instead, when an excerpt from it was published, his swans got very ruffled feathers.

Every time you stand in line for groceries, the tabloids scream at you with so much drama that you either love it or hate it. Or, in the case of “Capote’s Women,” you cultivate it.

And that’s infinitely fun, as told by author Laurence Leamer.

Happily, though, Leamer doesn’t embellish or disrespect these women or Capote; he tells their tales in order, gently allowing readers’ heads to spin with the wild, globe-hopping goings-on but not to the point that it’s overdone. While most of this book is about these seven beautiful, wealthy, and serially married women – the Kardashians of their time, if you will – Capote is Leamer’s glue, and Truman gets his due, as well.

Readers who devour this book will be sure that the writer would’ve been very happy about that.

“Capote’s Women” should be like catnip to celeb-watchers of a Certain Age but even if you’re not, find it. If you’re a Hollywood fan, you’ll want to get a lock on it.

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