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FALL ARTS 2018 THEATER: ‘Macbeth,’ ‘King John’ and Kahn’s swan song

Iron Crow tackles ‘Laramie Project,’ Synetic offers ‘Sleepy Hollow’

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fall theater, gay news, Washington Blade

Chris Genebach, on left, and Jaysen Wright in ‘Macbeth’ at Folger Theatre. (Photo by Brittany Diliberto; courtesy Folger)

The fall theater season is proving to be an exciting mix of classics, area premieres and some promising new works. And, like always, LGBT theater professionals are playing a big part in making it happen. 

In memoriam of the 20th anniversary of Matthew Shepard’s death, Baltimore’s award-winning queer company Iron Crow Theatre (45 West Preston St., Baltimore) presents“The Laramie Project” through Sept. 23. With just eight actors playing about 60 characters, the seminal 2000 work weaves together interviews, journal entries and published news reports about the hate crime murder of the gay University of Wyoming student. It’s written by out playwright Moisés Kaufman and the members of Tectonic Theater Project and John Knapp directs. Full details at ironcrowtheatre.org. 

Signature Theatre (4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington) continues with its season opener, an exquisite production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Passion” through Sept. 23. Set in 1860s Italy, Passion portrays the unlikely but intense relationship between a dashing young soldier and his commanding officer’s plain and ill-fated cousin Fosca. Out actor Claybourne Elder and Natascia Diaz give stellar performances. It’s beautifully staged by out director Matthew Gardiner. 

Also, at Signature, out director Joe Calarco helms “Heisenberg” Sept. 18-Nov. 11. In this hit Broadway play, Simon Stephens (“The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time”) writes about a chance encounter on a London train that changes two people’s lives. Full details at sigtheatre.org.

Folger Theatre (201 E. Capitol St., S.E.) has kicked off the season with a wildly entertaining production of William Davenant’s Restoration era adaption of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” (through Sept. 23). There’s a lot happening here: fabulous period music performed by the Folger Consort, expanded roles for the witches and Lady Macbeth, and lots of blood and flourish. What’s more, director Robert Richmond has opted to stage a play within a play and set the action in London’s notorious Bedlam asylum. The uniformly excellent large cast includes Ian Merrill Peakes in the title role and Kate Eastwood Norris as his wife. Also featured is out actor Jaysen Wright as an asylum inmate with PTSD who’s been cast to play Lenox 

Next up at Folger, Aaron Posner directs Shakespeare’s epic royal power struggle, Shakespeare’s “King John” (Oct. 23-Dec. 2). The cast includes Kate Eastwood Norris as Philip the Bastard and out actor Holly Twyford as Constance. Full details at folger.edu/folger-theatre.

Taffety Punk (Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, 545 7th St., S.E.) presents Sadie Hasler’s dark comedy “Pramkicker” through Sept. 29. Find out what happens after a woman loses it in a café, kicks a pram and is then arrested and sent to anger management training. Details at taffetypunk.com.

At Mosaic Theater Company (Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St., N.E.) it’s “Marie and Rosetta,” running through Sept. 30. Geroge Brant’s terrific play with music takes a glimpse into the personal/professional relationship of gospel singer and rock and roll pioneer Sister Rosetta Tharpe and singer/pianist Marie Knight. It’s cleverly staged by Sandra L. Holloway with vibrantly memorable performances by Roz White and Ayana Reed. Full details at mosaictheater.org 

Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company (641 D St., N.W.) starts the season with “Gloria,” running through Sept. 30. Penned by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, the 2016 Pulitzer Prize finalist centers on the cutthroat culture of the New York magazine world. The cast includes talented out actor Justin Weaks. Kip Fagan directs. Full details at woollymammoth.net.

Through Oct. 7, “South Pacific” runs at Olney Theater Center (2001 Olney-Sandy Springs Road, Olney, Md.). The Rodgers & Hammerstein’s timely classic about love, war and racism is directed by Alan Maraoka. Full details at olneytheatre.org.

Theater Alliance (Anacostia Playhouse, 2020 Shannon Pl., S.E.) opened the season with “The Events,” running though Oct. 7. Scottish playwright David Greig tells the story of Clare, the lone survivor of a mass shooting. Colin Hovde directs. Full details at theateralliance.com. 

GALA Hispanic Theatre (3333 14th St., N.W.) is presenting the U.S. premiere of the romantic comedy “Como agua para chocolate (Like Water for Chocolate),” through Oct. 7. Adapted from the novel by Laura Esquivel, the play (performed in Spanish with English surtitles), is the story of a young woman trapped by traditions who finds freedom in cooking “so magical it inspires people to laugh, cry and burn with desire.” The cast includes Luz Nicolás and out actor Carlos Castillo. Full details at galatheatre.org.

Studio Theatre (1501 14th St., N.W.) enters fall with “If I Forget,” through Oct. 14. Written by Bethesda native Steven Levenson, it’s the story of a modern, D.C. Jewish family grappling with aging parents, Israel and real estate. Matt Torney directs. Full details at studiotheatre.org.

Ford’s Theatre (511 10th St., N.W.) presents “Born Yesterday” (Sept. 21-Oct. 21). Directed by Aaron Posner, this terrific satirical comedy about an opportunistic tycoon who arrives in 1940s Washington with his naive girlfriend to game the political system (sound familiar?). Kimberly Gilbert stars as Billie Dawn, the role that Judy Holliday made famous. Full details at fords.org.

The Klunch (D.C. Arts Center, 2438 18th St., N.W.) opens its season with the world premiere of “How to Win a Race War” (Sept. 21-Oct. 30). Written and directed by The Klunch’s out artistic director Ian Allen, the three-part comedy is “a parody of white supremacist ‘race war’ fiction, which has proliferated in the years since Timothy McVeigh named William Pierce’s “The Turner Diaries” as inspiration for his brutal 1995 bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City.” (18 and older only). Full details at theklunch.com.

Shakespeare Theatre Company (Lansburgh Theatre, 450 7th St., N.W.) kicks off legendary out artistic director Michael Kahn’s final season with “The Comedy of Errors” (Sept. 25-Oct. 28). Staged by out director Alan Paul, the Bard’s madcap farce revolves around mishaps of two sets of twins, each with the same name. The top-notch cast includes out actors Sarah Marshall and Tom Story. 

Later into STC’s season, Michael Kahn directs David Ives’ “The Panties, The Partner and The Profit: Scenes from the Heroic Life of the Middle Class” (Dec. 4-Jan. 6). Moving from Boston in 1950 to Wall Street in 1986 to lavish Malibu today, Ives’ funny new work is an adaption of Carl Sternheim’s epic trilogy, “Scenes from the Heroic Life of the Middle Classes.” Full details at shakespearetheatre.org.

Synetic Theater (1800 South Bell Street, Chrystal City) is set to give its movement-based interpretation of the spooky tale of Ichabod Crane and his encounters with the Headless Horseman in “Sleepy Hollow” (Oct. 3-Nov. 4). Details at synetictheater.org.

At Round House Theatre (4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda) Amber Paige McGinnis makes her directorial debut staging out playwright Paula Vogel’s magnificent “How I learned to Drive” (Oct. 10 – Nov. 4). The award-winning play heartbreakingly chronicles a woman’s attempt to break the silence and cycle surrounding sexual abuse. Ayssa Wilmoth Keegan stars as Li’l Bit. Details at roundhousetheatre.org 

Constellation Theatre Company (1835 14th St., N.W.) begins its “Epic Love” season with Elton John and Tim Rice’s “Aida” (Oct. 11- Nov. 18). Staged by out director Michael J. Bobbitt, the musical follows a love triangle involving Nubian princess Aida who’s been kidnapped from her country; Radames, the Egyptian captain who enslaved her people; and his fiancée Princess Amneris. Details at constellationtheatre.org 

At the National Theatre (1321 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W.) fall is filled with music — new and not so new. First, it’s “Beetlejuice” (Oct. 14-Nov. 18). Alex Timbers directs the pre-Broadway world premiere of this new musical comedy, based on Tim Burton’s quirky iconic film. After that, it’s the road show of the Tony Award-winning Broadway hit “Beautiful: the Carole King Musical” (Nov. 27-Dec. 30). Details at Thenationaldc.org. 

At Theater J (offsite performance, Arena Stage, 1106 6th St., S.W.), it’s Anna Ziegler’s provocative new play “Actually” (Oct. 17-Nov. 18). Johanna Gruenhut directs this provocative new play about issues surrounding sexual consent at American colleges. The cast features Sylvia Kates and out actor Jaysen Wright. Details at Theaterj.org.

WSC Avant Bard (Gunston Arts, 2700 South Lang St., Arlington) presents the intriguing “Illyria, or What You Will,” a work freely adapted from Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” (Oct. 18-Nov. 19). Conceived by Jonelle Walker and Mitchell Hébert and directed by Hébert, the piece “reimagines Shakespeare’s comedy of mixed-signal love in a downtown Manhattan dive bar in the early 1980s, where identity, sex and gender are what you will.” The 11-person cast features out actors Christopher Henley and Frank Britton. Full details at wscavantbard.org.

The Kennedy Center presents “Anastasia” (Oct. 30-Nov. 25), a romantic musical by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty about the fabled Grand Duchess Anastasia who may or may not have escaped execution during the Russian Revolution. Details at kennedy-center.org.

Arena Stage (1101 6th St., S.W.)  presents “Anything Goes” (Nov. 2-Dec. 23). Staged by Arena’s artistic director Molly Smith, this Cole Porter comedy musical about love and hijinks on a New York to London bound luxury cruiser features — among many standards — “You’re the Top” and “I Get a Kick Out of You.” Corbin Blue plays young lovestruck Wall Street broker Billy Crocker. Full details at arenastage.org.

D.C.’s company dedicated to the LGBT experience, Rainbow Theatre Project (D.C. Arts Center, 2438 18th St., N.W.), presents “Jeffrey Higgins: A Deafening Sound (a cabaret)” (Nov. 23-24).  Directed and performed by Higgins, it’s the exploration of a gay life through song. Details at rainbowtheatreproject.org. 

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New Philly production explores AIDS through three characters

Ain Gordon’s ‘These Don’t Easily Scatter’ more than a static memorial

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Ain Gordon (Photo by Paula Court)

These Don’t Easily Scatter
May 20-22
William Way LGBT Community Center
1315 Spruce St, Philadelphia 19107
$20
Waygay.org

Plaques fail. And a memorial doesn’t need to be an immoveable piece of stone.

It’s this line of thought that formulated “Remembrance,” an alternative multidisciplinary memorial to Philadelphia’s AIDS crisis and its under-mourned deaths, made up of activities throughout May and June in the City of Brotherly Love.

Included is Ain Gordon’s new play “These Don’t Easily Scatter” to be performed in the William Way LGBT Community Center’s freshly renovated ballroom for just four performances (May 20-22). Both written and directed by the three-time Obie Award winning playwright, the work takes inspiration from interviews and stories gathered from individuals affected by HIV/AIDS and follows three imagined characters navigating the early days of the AIDS epidemic in Philadelphia.

Gordon, who is gay, has woven aspects of AIDS into previous plays (“217 Boxes of Dr. Henry Anonymous,” “Radicals in Miniature”), but this time he’s focused closely on the crisis. Set during 1982-1987, the play covers five intense years remembered vividly by the playwright, a lifelong New Yorker who was young, sexually active, and on the scene at the time.

Through interviews, he’s unearthed stories of Philadelphia-area community members who passed unnoticed with very little support. Gordon also chronicles accounts of those who selflessly assisted including a Philadelphia funeral director who offered proper burials to the dead when others were too frightened.

“The process was difficult because all interviewing had to be remote, and that’s the antithesis of what I like to do,” he explains. “I prefer to go to the place and talk in person. When you’re on site, meandering can happen and you find out things you hadn’t planned to ask. But it was the reality, so I dealt with it.”

With so many theatrical and film works surrounding HIV/AIDS and the ‘80s, Gordon sought a unique angle. His interviews included faith leaders and family, but he zeroed in on health care workers who administered to early AIDS patients, primarily nurses. Their stories were both illuminating and timely in context of the current pandemic.

He says, “Infectious disease doctors who were mostly men were the stars of the show. I’m often interested in the supporting players who stand behind the stars and those were the nurses.”

But how do interviews become a cast of characters?

“To be brutally frank, the budget allowed for three actors,” Gordon explains. “Didn’t know who those characters were for a long time. But I knew that I had a collection of things that needed to get in and I needed to find a container that could hold them.”

An especially revelatory interview with a nurse resulted in a character. An early interview with a faith leader who mentioned a woman who’d been in the choir and volunteered to sing at funerals when no one else would, conjured another. The third was a gay man, because gay men featured predominantly in all of the interviews.

“At that point,” he says, “you stop talking, get rid of your notes, and start writing. And hopefully it all comes together.”

Gordon is grateful to have assembled an A-list cast including Cherene Snow as the nurse, out actor Bill Kux is the gay guy, and the brilliant Kathleen Chalfant best known on Broadway for her part in the original production of Tony Kushner’s seminal “Angels in America,” plays the chorister.

The work’s conceit is monologues resembling interviews. The unnamed gay character, a young man finding his way sexually and having a great time, brings the names he wants to remember – mostly casual sex partners. Some stories are short: He recalls a guy he had sex with in a train station bathroom. He’d forgotten all about him until he saw his obituary photo in the paper.

For the playwright, “These Don’t Easily Scatter” is more than a static memorial.

“I’m interested in how history tends to be promoted in physically inactive objects. I think it can come in other forms and if they’re more fluid history can actively live on.”

A lot of his work is place-based plays – typically he gets a commission to travel to a location and write something specific to the place. And that’s what he’s done in Philadelphia.

“It’s important that the work is freestanding enough so it can be presented as a piece of theater someplace else where nobody knows about the story,” he adds. “It’s also important to give something back to the generous people involved in the process, and to commemorate those who have died, if not by name, then by remembrance.”

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‘John Proctor is the Villain’ draws cannily from American lit

An enthralling work replete with pitch-perfect performances

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Jordan Slattery, Miranda Rizzolo, and Deidre Staples in ‘John Proctor is the Villain.’ (Photo by Margot Schulman)

John Proctor is the Villain
Through June 5
Studio Theatre
1501 14th St., N.W.
$50 – $95
Studiotheatre.org

There’s a lot going on in Carter Smith’s junior English class at Helen County High in rural Georgia.  

Not only are they tackling Arthur Miller’s colonial Salem-set play “The Crucible,” but budget cuts require that he open each class with 10 minutes of sex-ed over six weeks. To complicate matters further, there are unsavory rumors surrounding two of Smith’s female students – one whose father has been accused of sexual misconduct and another who’s absconded to Atlanta under a cloud of scandal. 

Playwright Kimberly Belflower’s terrific new work, “John Proctor is the Villain,” a world premiere now running at Studio Theatre, draws cannily from American literature, examining the meaning of witch hunt in Miller’s red scare allegory compared to what’s happening in her play’s one stop light (soon-to-be two) town in 2018. 

Filled with pop-culture references – lots of Taylor Swift, Beyoncé, Lizzo, Lorde, and even fashion guru Tim Gunn’s catch phrase “make it work,” the play’s two hours with a fifteen-minute intermission moves quickly as action unfolds in many scenes scattered throughout a semester. 

At a time when #MeToo was changing from allegations about individuals to something bigger, the smart girls in Smith’s class want to form a feminism club. A well-meaning young counselor, Ms. Gallagher (Lida Maria Benson) thinks maybe it’s not the right time, but with the help of Smith as moderator, it happens.  

Dave Register’s Carter Smith is a handsome, young teacher with a charming slight Georgia accent. The girls in his honors class admire him for different reasons including – in no particular order – his picture-perfect marriage and Christian faith, his sensitivity, and the bulge in his sweat pants.

Led by overachieving yet self-effacing Beth (Miranda Rizzolo), the feminist club shifts focus from timely topics to interpersonal relationships and spicy gossip. Other members include the local Baptist preacher’s daughter Raelynn (Jordan Slattery), adamant Ivy (Resa Mishina) with the handsy father, and outgoing Nell (Deidre Staples), a big city transplant new to a school where friendships date back to first grade. 

Eventually two boys join the group – Mason (Ignacio Diaz-Silverio) a regular dude in need of extra credit who proves surprisingly progressive, and Lee (Zachary Keller) a strapping guy who wants to be near to his ex-girlfriend.  

Midsemester, volatile Shelby (Juliana Sass), a troubled girl with a secret, returns to Smith’s class with her own significant take on Miller’s honorable adulterer John Proctor and what makes a witch hunt.  

While it’s definitely an ensemble piece, Raelynn’s coming of age arc is the most interesting. With a blank countenance similar to Jenelle from “Teen Mom” (my pop culture reference), Slattery plumbs her church girl part for laughs and meaning. By play’s end, she’s engaging in a defiant dance not unlike the Crucible girls who danced naked in the forest. 

Despite taking inspiration from Miller’s intense drama, the playwright slips in a sweet scene of bashful young love straight from the pages of Thornton Wilder. It’s an endearing moment, seamlessly worked into the story.  

Luciana Stecconi’s brightly lit, pale blue-walled set is pure verité: standard issue desks and chairs, clutter, a white board adhered to an old blackboard, and a bulletin board dedicated to Georgia’s women writers with Flannery O’Connell featured dead center. Sound designer Kathy Ruvuna further revs up the teen energy with blasts of familiar-sounding pop music. 

But mostly, it’s veteran director Marti Lyon who brings to life an enthralling work replete with hope, rage, and pitch-perfect performances. In 2018, Lyons had great success at Studio with “The Wolves,” a candid glimpse into the lives of adolescent girls who play soccer. And now with Studio’s current offering, she again makes audiences privy to an otherwise mostly closed world.

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Out actor embraces role in audacious, healing production

‘There’s Always the Hudson’ confronts painful wounds head on

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‘Playing T is one of greatest honors of my career,’ says actor Justin Weaks.

‘There’s Always the Hudson’
May 9-June 5
641 D St., N.W.
$29-$64
Woollymammoth.net

Healing can be messy, says out actor Justin Weaks. And in “There’s Always the Hudson,” playwright/actor Paola Lázaro’s audacious and unapologetically healing new work, actors can’t cower and audiences are compelled to experience a little discomfort along with the entertainment.

Lázaro and Weaks play best friends Lola and T (short for Toussaint) who met in a sexual abuse survivors support group three years previously. At some point, the pair made a pact that if things failed to improve, they’d kill themselves. When Lola says today’s the day to die, they agree to first settle scores with some of those who’ve hurt them. The night is about them taking New York City by storm and confronting their wounds head-on.

T is Black, gay, a Haitian immigrant, and a survivor of sexual abuse and trauma – identities that can heavily stigmatize in our culture. Throughout the course of the play, the audience watches as T increasingly find his voice.

Weaks, 31, says, “Lola and T have a lot to say and world has told them they’re not interested in hearing from people like them. But this is the night they say the shit that needs to be said.”
And without hesitation, he adds, “Playing T is one of greatest honors of my career, a dream come true.”

The piece is different from anything else he’s done, and for the playwright and star to agree to take this ride with him, he feels, is extraordinary: “You’ve never seen people talk like this on stage, I promise. It’s radical.”

A lean and mean intermission-less 80 minutes, the play covers some heavy terrain but it’s also “funny as hell – and might leave you with a little bit of whiplash,” he says. Its director, Jess McLeod, whom Weaks charmingly describes as “a fiery general with an enormous heart, the perfect person for the job,” keeps the five-person cast on task.

While Weaks has been a part of new works in the past, this time feels unique. It wasn’t until a little over a month ago that T, a character conceived by the playwright four years ago, was rewritten as gay.

“The play worked with T straight, but now that he’s gay it’s hitting on so many cylinders,” he says. “I’m not sure that change could have happened if someone else was in the role. I like to think my presence in the process maybe informed that in some way and deepened the work.”
In November 2021, Weaks left D.C. for New York. “It was time, and ‘There’s Always the Hudson’ is the perfect punctuation mark for the end of my time in Washington.”

Just three weeks after coming to D.C. from North Carolina in 2016, the gifted actor was diagnosed with HIV: “I didn’t know anybody yet. Didn’t have community yet. I had come to work, for a year, maybe two. Never foresaw being embraced by the community in the way that I’ve been.

“I understand what it feels like to have an identity that is stigmatized. Part of why I feel connected to T., through playing him, I get to feel. By stepping into his journey, I get to heal a lot of stuff.”

During Weaks’ time in the DMV, he earned multiple Helen Hayes Award nods winning in 2017 for his supporting turn in Theater Alliance’s “Word Becomes Flesh.” Other performances of note, among many, include “BLKS” and “Gloria” (Woolly Mammoth) “G of the Ocean” (Round House) “Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea” (Theater Alliance) and “Curve of Departure” and “Pipeline.” (Studio).

“There’s Always the Hudson” was two weeks into rehearsal in March 2020 when production was shut down due to COVID. Everyone involved felt then it was an important and affecting work, and they still feel that way, he says. Now the original cast and creative team have reconvened to deliver on the play’s promise.

“It’s a thrill to create a role that will forever be a part of the American theater canon. When I graduated from college 10 years ago there were no parts like T. I’m excited that he’ll be inhabited by many actors after me, but I’ll always feel protective of Toussaint.”

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