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Signature’s ‘Girlfriend’ is endearing coming-of-age musical

Well-acted, well-paced gay teen romance is awash in ‘90s nostalgia

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Girlfriend play review, gay news, Washington Blade

Lukas James Miller, left, as Mike and Jimmy Mavrikes as Will in ‘Girlfriend.’ (Photo by Christopher Mueller; courtesy Signature)

‘Girlfriend’
 
Through June 10
 
Signature Theatre
 
4200 Campbell Ave, Arlington
 
$40-98.
703-820-9771

We never actually meet the girlfriend in “Girlfriend,” Todd Almond’s coming-of age musical making its D.C.-area premiere at Signature Theatre in a terrifically charming production staged by out director Matthew Gardiner. Yes, she’s referred to here and there, but the real story centers on ostensibly mismatched teenage boyfriends experiencing the awkward throes of first love.

It’s the summer after high school graduation in small-town Nebraska circa early 1990s, and popular college -bound athlete Mike (Lukas James Miller) and Will (out actor Jimmy Mavrikes), an unfocussed but clever outcast, are biding their time before entering into the next chapter of young adulthood. An unlikely pair drawn together by a love for a certain alt rock album (cassette played on boom box), they start hanging out as friends but slowly, and awkwardly, the relationship moves toward romance.

Theirs is not the most conducive environment for a budding same-sex fling, but the guys make the most of it, spending many summer nights at the local drive-in repeatedly watching “Evangeline,” a comic-book movie about a superhero nun. Initially, there’s very little talking, or touching. They’re stiff and uncomfortable. But they begin to relax, and when the pair begin running errands together, it’s clear that things are getting a little serious. 

“Girlfriend” unfolds over one summer of phone calls, music, movies and driving around. Misha Kachman’s set is a strip of bright green Astroturf with generic teen bedrooms on either side. In the center are two chairs that serve as Mike’s car. Miller and Mavrikes, young actors with big futures ahead of them, give pitch-perfect performances.

It’s fascinating to watch Miller’s popular, prom king runner-up Mike grappling with his growing attraction to outsider Will. And it’s equally interesting to see how self-deprecating and lonely, yet self-aware Will responds when his good-looking, overachiever crush expresses interest in him. Almond’s script rings true to life, touching and funny, but never overdone. He captures the essence of first love and all that that entails, especially for two gay boys who must remain guarded; revealing their authentic selves could prove dangerous. Guided by director Gardiner, the actors share a combustive chemistry that makes the production that much more memorable.

The 90-minute musical was inspired by Matthew Sweet’s 1991 alternative-rock album also titled “Girlfriend” which includes pop ballads like “I’ve Been Waiting” and “Looking at the Sun.” Sweet wrote the music when he and his wife were ending their marriage, yet Almond smartly uses these very same songs to tell the story of two young guys at the very onset of their romance. Mavrikes and Miller, both excellent performers, are backed by a powerful onstage four-woman band.

Sweet’s songs are filled with youth, romance and heartbreak. Almond adds the angsty feelings and all the excitement and butterflies surrounding your first boyfriend or girlfriend. As gay teenagers in the Midwest, Will and Mike’s finding each other feels completely natural yet it’s also a monumental, seismic experience. While their getting together isn’t entirely without challenges, they manage to create a summer that under other circumstances would have been a definitely lonelier and possibly grim couple of months.

“Girlfriend” is sure to resonate for anyone who’s fallen in love, but particularly gay audiences. Let’s hope the show’s run is extended through the end of June in celebration of Pride month.

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Theater

Be prepared to clap for ‘Nollywood Dreams’ at Round House

Theatergoers asked to play audience of Nigerian chat show

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Joel Ashur (Wale Owusu) and Jacqueline Youm (Adenikeh) in ‘Nollywood Dreams’ at Round House Theatre. (Photo by Margot Schulman Photography)

‘Nollywood Dreams’
Through July 3
Round House Theatre
4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda, MD 20814
$55-$78
Roundhousetheatre.org

If you see “Nollywood Dreams” at Round House Theatre, be prepared to clap a lot, whether you like it or not.  For almost a third of Jocelyn Bioh’s 100-minute-long comedy, theatergoers are asked to play the audience of an Oprahesque Nigerian chat show with a big personality host and large projected words (cheer, applause) prompting the house to make lots of noise. It’s tough not to comply. 

Set in ‘90s Nigeria, it’s all about Nollywood, the nickname for the Lagos-based film industry that ranks above Hollywood and second only to India’s Bollywood in the number of films produced annually. 

Decked out in fabulous traditional attire, the spirited finger-snapping TV host Adenikeh (Jacqueline Youm) leads with niceties before going in for the kill. Her big-name guests prove central to the story:  director Gbenga Ezie (Yao Dogbe) recently returned home from America and looking to make a Nollywood hit; gorgeous veteran star Fayola (Yetunde Felix-Ukwu), who’s counting on a comeback to revive a slipping career; and Wale Owusu, Nigeria’s “Sexiest Man Born,” played by the faultlessly cast Joel Ashur. 

Glued to the TV in the office of the family travel business, sisters Dede and Ayamma Okafor (played by Renea S. Brown and Ernaisja Curry, respectively) faithfully watch Adenikeh’s eponymous program, breathlessly taking in every Nollywood scoop and subsequent development. While elder sister Dede is content to swoon over male pulchritude, Ayamma has aspirations to be more than a fan, she wants to act. When director Gbenga holds an open casting call to find a fresh face for his new love triangle romance, “The Comfort Zone,” she grasps at the chance. 

A broad comedy broadly acted by an appealing cast, Bioh’s storyline is predictable, a Cinderella story without surprise. It’s a loud world seemingly inhabited by stock characters – the heartthrob, a shady film auteur, an aging film actress, squabbling sisters – but despite all, they aren’t without nuance. The characters prove dimensional and worthy of some investment.  

Also, along with the over-the-top comedy, Bioh’s work refreshingly shows an Africa that isn’t always presented on stage. People’s dreams, desires, and relationships are set against a bustling urban sprawl culturally glued together by the cult of celebrity.

The action plays out on Jonathan Dahm Robertson’s terrific revolving (sometimes dizzyingly so) set made up of three locales — the travel office, daytime TV set, and Gbenga’s well-appointed Nollywood Dreams Studio (with the outsized signage to prove it). It’s an energizing and memorable design. 

Brandee Mathies’s costumes are almost a show in themselves. Exuberantly colorful, they cleverly bring together traditional garb and western silhouettes with joyful flourishes of Nigerian flare. The showbiz folks are costumed, well, showier. It’s short skirts and glittery stilettos for fan favorite Fayola, long touted for her Tina Turner legs.

A Ghanian-American writer, playwright and actor, Bioh grew up on Nollywood flicks. In fact, “Beyonce: The President’s Daughter” (2006), one of her favorites, was an inspiration for “Nollywood Dreams.” Her debut work “School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play,” an entertaining tale of teenage trials and tribulations set at a boarding school in provincial ‘80s Ghana was a great success for Round House in 2019.

And at the helm of Round House’s current offering is Theater Alliance’s producing artistic director Raymond O. Caldwell. As gay, Black, and Asian, Caldwell sometimes refers to himself as third culture. In this instance, the Helen Hayes-winning director has heartily plunged into Bioh’s vision and with relish and created a piece rife with fun and feeling.

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‘Atemporal’ explores intersection of misdiagnosis, identity

Sianna Joslin to star in D.C.’s latest one-person show

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At age 16, Sianna Joslin learned they had a disability. They were diagnosed with temporal lobe epilepsy, a disorder associated with seizures caused by the excessive release of electrical signals from some of the brain’s nerve cells. It would not be until a decade later they found out that, from the beginning, they had been misdiagnosed.

This unexpected discovery spurred a period of deep self-reflection, Joslin explained. When coming to terms with her initial diagnosis, she created a 20-minute standup show entitled “Temporal,” discussing disability and sexuality. This July, she plans to circle back to her first performance with a new, autobiographical one-person show: “Atemporal,” which explores misdiagnosis, disability, trans identity and grief.

“I just naturally gravitated towards the idea of having another show about it,” she explained. “It’s kind of a requiem for the version of myself that I had built out of this trellis of having a disability.”

The show delves into their experience navigating relationships with both disability and gender identity, following Joslin’s discovery that they were non-binary in the years following their diagnosis.

“When I got off my epilepsy meds, I realized that I was experiencing some form of gender dysphoria,” they said. With “my brain kind of resetting, I viewed myself in an entirely different way. There’s so many different intersections between disability, sexuality (and) gender identity.”

In the performance, Joslin also looks at the experience of losing her father, and the grief that came from the experience. She never came out to him before his death, which complicates her experiences with memory and identity. The show also opens and closes with musical performances, tapping into Joslin’s lifelong passion for music.

“Having done a similar show before, I know that it’s emotionally draining,” Joslin noted. “But it’s so worth it at the end to be able to share something that’s so personal.”

Joslin hopes that those who do not hold identities examined in the performance — be they cisgender, straight or able-bodied — will be able to learn about experiences that differ from their own. And, perhaps more personally, they want those who relate to experiences outlined in the show to know that they are seen.

“Having been diagnosed with epilepsy for a decade is not something that happens every day,” she said. “The individual experiences that I’ve had going to a club and not being able to look at the strobe lights or going to a concert and having to wear sunglasses, that impacts a lot of people with epilepsy.”

“This is something that a lot of people experience,” Joslin added, “and we can get through it together.”

“Atemporal” will be performed in 3 Stars at 3270 M St. NW, Washington, D.C., on July 15 at 9:30 p.m., July 16 at 2:15 p.m., July 17 at 7 p.m., July 23 at 5 p.m. and July 24 at 6:30 p.m.

The show takes part in the 2022 Capital Fringe Festival, a series of shows hosted by local arts nonprofit Capital Fringe. Tickets can be purchased for $15, and more information can be found at the Capital Fringe Festival website or the show’s webpage.

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Theater

Queer rom-com ‘In His Hands’ combines sexuality, laughs

A world premiere at Mosaic Theater Company

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Playwright Benjamin Benne (center) with actors Michael J. Mainwaring (left) and Josh Adams (right). (Photo by Chris Banks)

‘In His Hands’
June 22 through July 17
Mosaic Theater Company
Atlas Performing Arts Center
1333 H St., N.E.
$20-68
Mosaictheater.org

Sexuality, spirituality, and laughs – all three coincide in rising playwright Benjamin Benne’s “In His Hands,” a queer rom-com making its world premiere this week at Mosaic Theater Company.

Here’s the plot: Daniel (Michael J. Mainwaring), a video game wizard and aspiring Lutheran pastor, is falling for Christian (Josh Adams), but as the pair explore the potential of their new relationship, voices from Christian’s past threaten to derail what’s developing.

Benne, 34, says, “The story I’m exploring is about two men who form a relationship that starts to feel really deep and rich and begins to tread into romantic territory. Because it’s accessible as a rom-com, I like to talk about it that way. But also, it asks more difficult questions about the often-fraught territory between Christianity and being gay. That was true for me growing up in Southern California.”

With the play’s themes and team involved (José Carrasquillo directs), the production is ideally suited for Pride month. And it’s been great for Benne timing wise too: Just hours after his recent graduation ceremony from grad school at Yale in Connecticut, he hopped a train to D.C. and started rehearsals the following morning. “It’s been an exhausting but wonderful couple of weeks,” he says.

WASHINGTON BLADE: Are you covering familiar terrain with “In His Hands”?
BENJAMIN BENNE: I knew from a very young age that I was queer in many definitions of the word – attracted to men, feeling at odds in terms of how I fit into culture, being a lot more feminine than I think a lot of people were comfortable with, and that most of my interests could label feminine culturally.

BLADE: And with Christianity?
BENNE: Very much, I was raised in a fundamentalist conservative Christian household and still identify as Christian but my understanding of God and sexuality has become more expansive since leaving those institutions at 20.

BLADE: Are you quite involved with the premiere?
BENNE: I sure am. I’m really fussy when it comes to word choice and dialogue. For instance, I’d been working on my last project “Alma” [a recently produced riposte to Trump’s anti-Mexican rhetoric] for seven years. And while there was value to what the 27-year-old playwright was trying to accomplish, as a 34-year-old, I had to elevate the writing.
This time, it’s been a little easier. I started writing “In His Hands in 2016,” so it feels more in line with where I’m at as a writer now.

BLADE: Is the work political?
BENNE: “In His Hands” is a political play and a story about lives. I try to make sure the characters’ ideas about God and sex are part of the fabric of their stories and not just ideas.

BLADE: What inspired you?
BENNE: I wrote from a place of someone turning 30 and how do I return to my relationship with faith. It felt broken. Today, I’m not actively seeking a relationship with a religious institution, but I am with seeking that with God.

Increasingly, I find those around me in progressive circles are asking questions about relationships to spirituality — not sure why. Maybe because we’re on the verge of climate collapse or mass extinction? Is humanity about to face the fate of the dinosaurs? Whatever, people are asking, Why am I here? Am I connected to something bigger than myself?

BLADE: When did you become a playwright?
BENNE: I got very serious about it two to three years after undergrad at Cal State Fullerton. My father had passed away, and I felt that if I wanted to pursue writing I needed to take it seriously. I grinded real hard in Seattle for three years taking playwrighting classes, joining writers’ groups, writing every second outside of my day jobs. Something about my father passing made me feel freer to write, and no longer beholden to expectations.

BLADE: When did you know it could work?
BENNE: I prayed if I’m supposed to keep writing I need a bone thrown my way and that’s when I got the fellowship at Many Voices in Minneapolis. I took it as a sign. I was able to work on writing and professional development – how to turn playwrighting into a living, which pushed me into grad school at Yale.

BLADE: Do you mind pitching the show?
BENNE: Oh, not at all. It’s a lot of fun. And if you’re into humor and a really sensual story that’s helpful in terms of this elusive connection between spirituality and sexuality, it’s worth your time for sure.

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