Connect with us


Woolly’s ‘Fire’ reframes famed painter

Signature’s ‘Scottsboro Boys’ revisits grim racial tragedy



Jon Hudson Odom (left) and James Crichton in ‘Botticelli in the Fire.’ (Photo by Scott Suchman)

‘Botticelli in the Fire’

Through June 24

Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company

641 D Street, NW



boticelli in the fire review, gay news, Washington Blade

Lamont Walker II and the cast of ‘The Scottsboro Boys.’ (Photo by C. Stanley Photography; courtesy Signature)

‘The Scottsboro Boys’

Through July 1

Signature Theatre

4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington



Sometimes illuminations, or at least entertainment, come looking backward through a gay lens.

Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company is offering the American premiere of out playwright Jordan Tannahill’s “Botticelli in the Fire,” a boldly modern and sexy reimagining of historical gay characters in Renaissance Florence.

It opens with Sandro Botticelli (out actor Jon Hudson Odom) staggering boozily through the audience to the stage. The great Renaissance painter is ready to dish, and girl, as Tannahill would have him say, does he have a story to tell. Looking back from the beyond, Botticelli remembers halcyon days as hot art star and darling of the Medici, the de facto rulers of glorious Renaissance Florence. But that was before Botticelli’s 1497 downfall. And, as he reminds us, everybody loves to hear about a downfall.

An enthusiastic voluptuary since birth as his plainspoken mother, Madre Maria (Dawn Ursula), explains, Botticelli believes in excess, pleasure and beauty; and while mostly interested in men, he’s willing to sleep with women too. Currently, he’s having an affair with the sexually free and beautiful Clarice Orsini (Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan), and because she’s sitting for Botticelli’s masterpiece “The Birth of Venus,” their assignations are frequent. At the same time, Botticelli is falling in love with his artistically precocious, fresh-from-the-farm assistant, Leonardo Da Vinci (James Crichton). And yet he still makes time to party hard with his outrageous gay bestie Poggio du Chullu (Earl T. Kim).

But there’s trouble in the city state. Botticelli’s patron and Clarice’s husband, the ruthless Lorenzo de’ Medici (Cody Nickell) is on to their affair. And outside the cossetted confines of Botticelli’s studio and the palace, the plague has resurfaced and the populace is panicked. Citizens are aligning with conservative friar Girolamo Savonarola (Craig Wallace) and they’re burning gay artists in the town square.

Director Marti Lyons has staged a series of beautiful tableau-like scenes, some of which could stand alone. Instances include a captive Leonardo calling to God from the bottom of a medieval septic tank: “If I am a Sodomite what are you?” And later, Botticelli lies across his plainspoken mother’s lap (à la Michelangelo’s Pietà) as she sponge-bathes him. Madre Maria advises her son to choose what he loves most, advice that ultimately leads him to burn his own paintings in a dramatic burning of art, books and finery.

It’s not a perfect piece, however. The script is uneven — campy repartee between gay characters gets tired and the actors have to work hard to land some stale jokes. Luckily, the strong cast keeps things afloat.

In the queering (or reexamining history from a queer lens) of the past, Tannahill takes liberties in creating a compelling gay love story rife with anachronisms — timely and amusing — in dialogue and sublime design. We’re reminded how the rights of artists and LGBT people are, again and again, called into question.

Across the Potomac in Arlington, Signature Theatre presents John Kander and Fred Ebb’s “The Scottsboro Boys,” a musical drawn from a grim episode in American history. Like Kander & Ebb’s musicals “Cabaret” and “Chicago,” this their final collaboration also takes on social issues with great theatricality. Here, a hideous true tale of Jim Crow injustice unfolds framed as a minstrel show.

Performed beneath a decaying proscenium arch, Signature’s production, staged by out director Joe Calarco with athletic choreography by Jared Grimes is smart and compelling theater. The Depression-era story is familiar. Nine down-and-out young African-American men and boys are riding the rails in search of work when they are falsely accused of rape by two young white women. Immediately jailed in Scottsboro, Ala.,, they are tried and condemned to death. Their fate becomes a cause with New York liberals, prompting famed Jewish defense attorney Samuel Leibowitz to take their case which leads to subsequent retrials and convictions.   

Stacked with minstrel stock characters — the Interlocutor, or emcee (Christopher Bloch), who represents the voice of the Old South, and broad comics Mr. Bones (the excellent Stephen Scott Wormley) and Mr. Tambo (Chaz Alexander Coffin) — we’re offered a glimpse into American theater history. As communicated by Kander and Ebb, the experience isn’t always easy. It’s sometimes uncomfortable to reconcile cake-walking, tap dancing choreography and the score’s upbeat ragtime tunes with themes of racism, anti-Semitism, injustice and brutality.

The focus is pulled on the most defiant of the Scottsboro boys, Haywood Patterson (played gracefully by Lamont Walker II). Other cast standouts include Aramie Payton as 12-year-old Eugene, the youngest of the accused, and DeWitt Fleming, Jr., who plays one of the boys as well as star witness Ruby Bates.

Well into the second act, when the young convicts’ last glimmer of hope for vindication is sufficiently dashed, things become especially heartbreaking. And the show’s final number in which the actors playing the boys relay their character’s uniformly tragic ends proves even sadder.



Drag now a leading draw at Olney as ‘Kinky Boots’ debuts

‘A beautiful piece about acceptance and tolerance’



Jason Loewith</strong. is Olney Theatre Center’s artistic director. (Photo by Christopher Mueller)

‘Kinky Boots’
Feb. 10-March 19
Olney Theatre Center
2001 Olney-Sandy Spring, Rd., Olney, Md.

In the last few years, Olney Theatre Center’s leafy, suburban campus has become a hotbed of drag activity and audiences are eating it up. 

“We’re getting old straight couples who don’t come for theater, but they’ll come for this,” says Jason Loewith, Olney’s artistic director for a decade.

What began as part of Olney Outdoors, a COVID-inspired open air summer series, drag shows quickly exploded into a leading draw. In fact, Olney’s drag nights — initially suggested by director of curated programming Kevin McAllister — have sold better than all other outdoor offerings including cabaret and jazz, Loewith explains. 

“Drag has brought us the most diverse audience for anything we’ve ever done: regular theatergoers and nontraditional theatergoers, queer and straight, old and young, and the very young for whom it would be illegal to watch a drag show in several states.” 

With that in mind, Loewith is now directing Olney’s production of “Kinky Boots” (opening Feb. 10), the uplifting Tony Award-winning collaboration featuring Cyndi Lauper’s quirky, hard driving rock score and Harvey Fierstein’s familiarly sentimental book.  Adapted from a small British film, it’s the story of Charlie Price, a young man trying to save his family’s failing shoe factory in depressed Northampton. A chance meeting with Lola, a London drag queen, unites the unlikely pair in an improbable business venture. 

Though “Kinky Boots” has been on his radar for a few years, it wasn’t always. In the early years of his Olney tenure, Loewith, 54, wasn’t that into a drag centric show. It just wouldn’t have answered the “why this” and “why now” that theaters ask when building a season, he says. But things have changed, and he’s learned a few things about what his audience likes. 

Now it’s the company’s first main stage show planned after the height of the pandemic. Still, Loewith was oddly nervous about directing. Despite having once dated a drag queen, he came to the project with little knowledge of the drag community so there was some anxiety involved, but that soon went away. 

It seems Loewith, who married his husband in the backyard of their Bethesda home in the summer of 2021, has rather fallen in love with the show: “It’s elegantly put together yet very strong; there’s a delightful simplicity to it, resulting in a beautiful piece about acceptance and tolerance. 

“It’s a great show about self-acceptance that touches on some universal themes like daddy issues. And with its message of opening your mind to free yourself, makes every day of the work a soul-affirming experience, especially in this moment of gender fluidity being under attack and perceived as something incredibly threatening.” 

He’s also elated with the cast. Although they considered looking to New York to fill some of the parts, it wasn’t necessary. They’ve found a phenomenal group of DMV talent (19 members of the show’s 20-person cast are locals). “And as Lola and Charlie, Solomon Parker III and Vincent Kempski, respectively, have claimed the triple threat roles,” he says. “They’re really born to play the parts.” 

A hit on the Broadway boards, “Kinky Boots” promises a  great experience on Olney’s comparatively intimate main stage too, he adds. Audiences get the big production numbers, the conveyer belt, and rock ballads, but here you get a much better sense of Charlie and Lola’s intertwining journeys. 

Replete with its own drag consultant Devon Vaow (who’s known to perform as Evon Michelle), the production is sponsoring related events including an opening night panel discussion on drag history; a Sip ‘n’ Face Paint (BYOM); a singles mixer that’s open to everyone; and Drag Queen Story Hour at nearby Olney Library (go to for details). 

All in all, Olney’s “Kinky Boots” is poised to offer a lot. At a moment when there are legislators attempting to ban drag performances on college campuses, it’s a good opportunity to support the visibility of drag. And Loewith says to expect a good time. He likens the experience to seeing four drag shows wrapped into one fabulous Broadway musical. 

Continue Reading


Six die in ‘Ride the Cyclone,’ then must plead to live again

A musical appeal for second chances



Nick Martinez in ‘Ride the Cyclone.’ (Photo by T Charles Erickson Photography)

‘Ride the Cyclone’
Through Feb. 19
Arena Stage
1101 Sixth St., S.W.

What better way to bond than landing in the afterlife together? In “Ride the Cyclone,” a quirky musical now at Arena Stage, six high school choir members perish in a freak roller coaster crash. After croaking, the sextet passes into a sort of limbo where they each have the chance to argue — in song — why they deserve to live again. While vying for the top spot, they learn a lot about each other. 

Out actor Nick Martinez plays Noel Gruber, one of the young choristers. He’s the only gay kid in a rural town who works at Taco Bell. But in his torchy song “Noel’s Lament,” he sings of his dream to be a cold-hearted Parisian hooker.

Martinez says, “It’s gritty, sexy, and hilarious — not at all Disney. My character is acting out his complete fantasy and taking you along for the ride. It’s especially relatable to anyone who grew up queer.” 

And the New York-based Hispanic actor who grew up queer in Coral Springs, South Florida, understands the material: “I know Noel. So many people in the queer community know him too. Not being able to authentically be ourselves hurts. And when we finally are ourselves and know the rewards that come with that, there’s a lot of release and ecstasy.”

Fortunately, Martinez was raised in a supportive atmosphere. Still, he was reluctant to be entirely himself, but theater proved a healthy outlet. He says, “Performing was a way to express myself and go balls to the wall with whatever feelings I was having, put it in a spotlight, and share that with an entire audience.”

As a third grader Martinez found his way into theater via his older sister whom he adored. When she starred as Cinderella in the gym of their elementary school, he was there to witness her backstage quick-change into a ballgown. It was the coolest thing he’d ever seen. 

The following year, he played the Tin Man in “The Wizard of Oz.” An old video shows his opening night reaction to enthusiastic applause — first delightedly astonished and then beaming. It’s then, Martinez says, that he became hooked. 

After graduating from Elon University with a BFA in Music Theatre in 2015, he moved to New York City where he almost seamlessly transitioned into a working actor. He’s played parts in terrific shows in admirable places including Moody in “Anne of Green Gables” at Goodspeed Opera House; Doody in “Grease” at The REV; Twink (covered) in “Bat Out of Hell” at New York City Center; Crutchie in “Newsies” at John W. Engeman Theater on Long Island; and Pinball Lad, a small but memorable role in “The Who’s Tommy” at The Kennedy Center – part of Broadway Center Stage.

With music, lyrics and book by Jacob Richmond and Brooke Maxwell, “Ride the Cyclone” premiered off-Broadway in 2008 and soon developed a sort of cultish following. “There’s nothing quite like it,” Martinez says. “It’s a silly, quirky, weird little show that tugs at your heartstrings. You need to see it to get the full impact.”  

Several years ago, he was up for a different part in the show but it didn’t pan out, so when he was cast as Noel, a part he wanted badly, he was elated. Before opening at Arena in January, the Sarah Rasmussen-directed production played at Princeton’s McCarter Theatre last spring.

When the Arena run ends, Martinez is unsure what’s next for him – the actor’s eternal lament, but he seems more than OK with that. In fact, Martinez embraces the situation. 

“There’s something grounding in letting the universe take you where it takes you and trusting in that.”

Continue Reading


‘A Room in the Castle’ highlights the women of ‘Hamlet’

Trans director DeHais joins Folger Theatre’s Reading Room festival



Eddie DeHais

‘The Reading Room’
‘A Room in the Castle’
Jan. 19 -21 
Folger Theatre @The Lutheran Church of the Reformation  
212 East Capitol St., S.E.
$25 for all four readings; $50 all access pass includes all 4 readings and all pre-show conversations and special events. Students free 1/2 hour before each reading and talk with valid ID.

Franco-American trans director Eddie DeHais is a triple citizen who speaks four languages and works all over the world. This week, they’re landing in Washington to direct a reading of Lauren Gunderson’s new play “A Room in the Castle,” part of Folger Theatre’s upcoming festival, The Reading Room. 

“A Room in the Castle,” focuses on the stories of the women of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” Queen Gertrude, Ophelia, and Tatiana, a middle-aged servant. The traditionally doomed and/or unheard women are seeking a level of safety and freedom in Ophelia’s bedroom, a place away from an increasingly dangerous court and mad prince where they can be themselves – something that’s forbidden in the greater world. Together they sing, laugh, and argue, trying to create hope in a hopeless situation. 

DeHais, who specializes in staging new works and reimagining classics, brings a lot to the collaboration: In addition to boatloads of energy and curiosity, they have a sharp ear and keen sense of humor. 

Recently recovered from a gnarly case of laryngitis, DeHais takes time to talk about the project. “Lauren [Gunderson] has written a beautiful piece that’s very funny, but also achingly painful. People will see themselves and see their mothers in the play’s gently blocked reading.” 

When we spoke, DeHais (who is nonbinary, trans, and bisexual) had just finished writing a greeting to the three-woman cast. In it, they spoke about the possibilities of living in a room. During the pandemic, DeHais as a grad student at Brown University in Providence spent a lot of time in a tiny apartment. Classes, community, and projects were cancelled, so they took up the ukulele and made a weekly drive to sing songs, admittedly rather badly, to their 90-something grandmother. The experience brought the two much closer together in a deeper, less predicated on structure relationship that continues now. 

Similarly, the women in “A Room in the Castle” make discoveries: Their room is a safe but dynamic place filled with wonderfully awkward moments of people trying to connect despite barriers of class and expectation. For instance, we find the Queen of Denmark getting drunk with a servant whom she never noticed before things went awry in the castle, adds DeHais.

“I love ‘Hamlet,’ but this is a play that tells the other half of the story. And because ‘Hamlet’ is a rich text which means there’s a rich story happening behind closed doors.”

The director began making attempts at coming out starting in their teens; a final public proclamation in their twenties stuck. They say it’s the best thing they ever did: “If I have to read another play about how painful it is to be a trans person I will kick the wall. And I’m asked to direct those. My life is amazing. Being me is the best thing that ever happened to me. There are very difficult parts of that story but that’s not my life.”

Based between New York and Berlin, they recently worked on a production of Salome in Paris. Next season, they’re slated to direct a lot in Seattle. “When offers come in, I ask my agent to tell whoever it is that I’m local – then I’ll get to wherever they want me.” 

DeHais closes with a nod to Folger Theatre’s director of programming/artistic director Karen Ann Daniels: “Few people know how to create community better than Karen Ann. We met when she was running the Public’s Mobile Unit in New York, and we stayed in touch. I don’t know D.C. well, so it was doubly flattering that she reached out. And where better than D.C. to talk about political structures that are silencing us?”

Other new plays featured in The Reading Room are Al Letson’s “Julius X,” a re-visioning of “The Tragedy of Julius Caesar” set during the life and times of Malcolm X; “Hamlet,” a radical bilingual New York City-set reimagining of the original created by Reynaldo Piniella and Emily Lyon; “Our Verse in Time to Come,” a Shakespeare inspired piece about legacy and storytelling by Malik Work and Karen Ann Daniels.

Continue Reading

Sign Up for Weekly E-Blast

Follow Us @washblade