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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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Deaf, gay actor on gripping, funny ‘Private Jones’

Musical makes premiere at Signature with Obie winner Dickie Drew Hearts

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Dickie Drew Hearts (Photo by Matthew Murphy)

‘Private Jones’
Through March 10
Signature Theatre 
4200 Campbell Ave.
Arlington, Virginia 22206
$40-$99 
Sigtheatre.org

Set against the harsh vicissitudes of the Great War, “Private Jones” a new musical written and directed by Marshall Pailet, is currently making its world premiere at Signature Theatre in Arlington. 

Touted as gripping, unexpectedly funny, and purportedly true, it’s the story of Gomer Jones, a young Deaf Welshman who after wriggling his way into military service becomes a celebrated sniper only to learn there might be more to life. 

The production features a cast of hearing, Deaf, and hard-of-hearing actors including Dickie Drew Hearts, the Deaf, gay, and affable actor who recently won an Obie Award for “Dark Disabled Stories” at the Public in New York, and is probably best known for his performance of Mateo in Netflix’s “Tales of the City” (2019 miniseries).

Gathered around the end of a long conference table in the Sondheim Multipurpose Room at Signature Theatre, Hearts and I along with two top notch interpreters (one to sign my questions and another to voice the actor’s replies) dive into conversation. 

Hearts plays Henry, a Deaf munitions factory worker whose sister Gwenolyn (Leanne Antonio) becomes the love interest of Gomer (played by hard-of-hearing actor Johnny Link). It’s Henry who teaches Gomer sign language and essentially introduces him to Deaf culture, which isn’t unusual, says Hearts. It’s often through other Deaf people that the Deaf themselves get introduced to the Deaf community and signing world.

When the actors met in 2018, says Hearts, “Johnny [Link] was just learning sign language. I assured him that those who are hard-of-hearing are automatically very welcome members of the deaf community. Point blank. There are no qualifications.”

And now, six years later, Hearts is thrilled to be working with Link. “It’s amazing to see Johnny again, and to be having full conversations with him in sign language both on and off stage.” 

Not only is “Private Jones” a physically demanding show, but because it’s performed in spoken English as well as some American Sign Language (ASL) and British Sign Language (BSL) it presents some extra difficulties.

To play Henry, Hearts – a native ASL user since childhood – has had to learn BSL, tantamount to doing the show in an entirely new and different language. Hearts says, “I hope people recognize that. And signing along musically in BSL adds a layer of challenge beyond signing BSL dialogue.” 

Of course, he remains undaunted. It’s about the job and getting the character right. And for the thirtysomething actor that means going deep.  

“I would like to think Henry is a closeted gay man. Henry has ‘a roommate,’ is how I thought of his backstory.”

Hearts adds, “I know that queer people have always been here and I like to infuse that into the characters I play whether or not it’s stated. I look for those moments of where it might be hinting at sexuality, and ask what was it like at the time, was it safe to be out?”

Born Deaf in Queens, New York, into a hearing family who’d recently immigrated from formerly British Guyana in South America, Hearts grew up in Newport News, Va. 

A childhood spent watching captioned TV shows taught him both English and how to impersonate characters, an obsession that he took out into the neighborhood. “Eventually, somebody said there’s a thing for what I do. It’s called theater,” he signs with a grin. 

While attending Gallaudet University here in D.C., Hearts focused on film until his senior year when he randomly auditioned for the musical comedy “Urinetown” and landed the lead role of dashing Bobby Strong. A love for acting resurfaced and took hold. 

After graduating, Hearts came out and promptly moved to L.A. where he spent the next six years skirmishing over a dearth of Deaf parts. When a gig led him to New York in 2018, his luck changed. 

“Being a Deaf, gay, BIPOC actor was amazing for finding stage and film work in New York. But just when a lot of doors were opening for me, the pandemic hit and everything stopped.” 

Slowly things picked up. And in 2021 he became part of a new project. He was soon reporting to a nondescript high rise in midtown Manhattan workshopping what would become “Private Jones.” 

Now at Signature, Hearts is busy bringing Henry to life. “It’s been an amazing journey and I’m really fortunate to have witnessed its evolution from the beginning. It’s become grander, more elevated, and the characters more complex. It’s a wonderful thing” 

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‘Next to Normal’ a heartrending rock musical about mental illness

Impact on patient, family, and beyond expressed through song

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Lucas Hinds Babcock (Gabe) and Tracy Lynn Olivera (Diana) in ‘Next to Normal’ at Round House Theatre. (Photo by Margot Schulman Photography)

‘Next to Normal’
Through March 3
Round House Theatre 
4545 East-West Highway
Bethesda, MD  20814
$46-$88 
Roundhousetheatre.org

They’ve made a deal. Dan goes to work and does the shopping, while Diana stays home and keeps house. It’s safer that way. But when Diana starts making sandwiches on the floor, something’s not right. So, it’s back to the doctor. 

And that’s the kickoff to “Next to Normal,” Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt’s masterful alt-rock musical, now enjoying a revival at Round House Theatre in Bethesda. Strikingly helmed by out director Alan Paul, the production features an exciting mix of both new and familiar faces. 

It’s the suburban mother’s sixteenth year into a bipolar disorder diagnosis and Diana Goodman, played brilliantly by Tracy Lynn Olivera, is understandably a bit battle weary. Yet despite years of periodic episodes, med adjustments, and interminable flat days filled with robotically performed household chores including sex with her husband, she still maintains a wry sense of humor peppered with sarcastic asides, all skillfully landed by Olivera. 

And while Diana is the eye of the domestic storm, the rest of the family play their parts too. There’s Dan (Kevin S. McAllister), the exhausted architect, doing his best to keep home life as normal as possible, supporting a wife while missing the young vibrant woman she once was; teenage daughter Natalie (Sophia Early) a peevish grade-grubber who’s prime for emotional escape; and an elusive son, Gabe (Lucas Hinds Babcock), being his mother’s ally. 

Also on hand is Henry (Ben Clark), the kind, stoner new boyfriend who Natalie reluctantly introduces to her parents.  

With “Who’s Crazy?”/ “My Psychopharmacologist and I,” we musically follow Diana through her current med adjustment. After almost two months of uncomfortable tweaking, Diana says she feels nothing and treatment is deemed a success. 

Feeling nothing is painful. Through her plaintive solo “I Miss the Mountains,” she explains the exhilarating highs she longs to relive. Unsurprisingly, the patient soon goes off her meds and what follows is a manic episode of nonstop cleaning, cooking, rearranging, and lots of decoupage.

Next up is more treatment including ECT therapy. Versatile local actor Calvin McCullough plays both Fine and Madden, Diana’s sincere but not wholly successful doctors. 

“Next to Normal” premiered to acclaim in 2008, scooping up awards with names like Tony and Pulitzer. A rock musical with a hard charging score and a libretto about mental illness that’s at once heartrending and funny felt new and was hugely well received. 

Similarly, the mostly sung through musical is a hit at Round House (with an extended run through March 3) thanks largely to the revival’s inventive staging, fresh musical direction by Chris Youstra, and an uber talented cast of six.  

Here, the powerful effects of mental illness on the patient, family, and beyond are expressed not through dialogue but songs feelingly sung – sometimes softly, sometimes loudly. 

Each of the cast have their moments, including Lucas Hinds Babcock as Gabe who zooms lithely around the set singing “I’m Alive.” It’s – to me – a fantastic introduction to Babcock’s talent.

Smartly, Eamon Foley provides some fun but mostly fittingly understated choreography, and Helen Q. Huang’s thoughtful costuming adds to the atmosphere, accentuating burgeoning Natalie’s changing means of sartorial expression and Diana’s patient versus civilian attire. 

Director Paul, along with celebrated designers Wilson Chin (scenic) and Nicholas Hussong (projections), have created an immense industrial expanse that serves as home, hospital, and recital hall, and cleverly supplies a surface for outsized projections of the actors’ faces and, most unforgettably, a tight shot of Olivera’s blinking blue eyes. 

These projections – both recorded and in real-time – get up close and personal with the cast’s performances, creating an intimacy and intensity that works especially well, making a satisfying experience even better.  

“Next to Normal” is a co-production with Massachusetts’s Barrington Stage Company where Alan Paul is artistic director. Before landing in the Berkshires in 2023, he was associate artistic director at Shakespeare Theatre Company.

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A busy Billie Krishawn focuses on ‘Sea Mink-ettes’ at Woolly Mammoth

Queer actor juggles theater with philanthropic work

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Billie Krishawn (Photo by DJ Corey Photography)

‘The Sensational Sea Mink-ettes’
Through March 3
Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company
641 D St., N.W.
$25-$82
Woollymammoth.net 

Striving to be perfect isn’t alien to actor Billie Krishawn. And that’s not unhelpful in playing Shanteé, an intense competitor on the HBUC dance scene in Vivian J.O. Barnes “The Sensational Sea Mink-ettes,” now making its world premiere at Woolly Mammoth Theatre.

Directed by Taylor Reynolds, the dramedy puts the spotlight on an HBCU six-woman dance team as they prepare for their high-stakes homecoming performance. The strain to get it right is tremendous as they deal with team dynamics, choreography, their outside lives and some unusual circumstances. 

Never having attended an HBCU college, Krishawn wasn’t familiar with dance teams. But that’s all changed now. “What they do appears effortless; everything is sharp and crisp, perfectly done. I love that energy,” she says.

“I also love playing my character’s many relatable aspects,” adds Krishawn who identifies queer/pansexual. “Shanteé is team captain, and one of two alfa girls in the group, the one who takes herself seriously. 

“She’s very put together on the outside and works very hard to get it right. There’s something beautiful about that effort, but there are also the dangerous bits. It can be hard to be that guarded; to only show up as the perfect version of yourself is unsustainable.” 

“Sea Mink-ettes” marks Krishawn’s debut with Woolly Mammoth. It’s also her introduction to the play’s Virginia born author. She recalls a moment in the audition process when the room was filled with about 60 Black women. “It was a wonderful, empowering moment. It continues to be like that. I’m grateful.” 

The graceful actor has always been drawn to the arts: “Visual arts were my first love, followed by music — violin and choir — and then poetry in middle school.” 

For high school, Krishawn’s mother pushed her to apply to the Duke Ellington School of the Arts something she’d wanted for herself, but it hadn’t worked out. The rising freshman agreed provided she study singing, but her mother demurred, “you’re very dramatic, you need to do theater.” Fortunately for local audiences, mother prevailed. 

At Duke Ellington, Krishawn found her theatrical bearings, and continued to pursue theater at Drew University, a small liberal arts college in Madison, N.J. A busy professional career ensued. 

The two-time Helen Hayes Award winner (“The Till Trilogy” at Mosaic Theatre Company, “Blood at the Root” at Theatre Alliance) is also a passionate activist. 

As a kid, she obsessively rented two favorite films from Blockbuster: “Ruby Bridges” and “Selma, Lord, Selma,” both about the civil rights movement. Later she extensively documented BLM protests with her camera, and more recently, has become focused on community care activism.

As founder of the DC Theatre Community Care page, Krishawn had created a mutual aid page run with the understanding that, “we will all give when we can and take when we need.” The group centers specifically around Washington’s theater community. 

“Life shouldn’t have to be so hard. Especially during times when we’re all trying to keep our heads above water.”

In 2020, she launched The SoSu Series, a safe space to highlight the work of Black, Indigenous women (cis and trans) and non-binary people of color working in the D.C. theater scene through a sequence of video interviews. The artists interviewed talk about their personal artistic ventures while also engaging in conversations around the untold struggles of being a woman or non-binary in an often-unwelcoming atmosphere. 

She’s partnered with Woolly Mammoth to do a clothing swap and is now working with Studio Theatre to offer free workshops surrounding dance, navigating intimacy in life and art, and even a tax preparation. 

Krishawn gets a lot done, but for the moment, she’s focusing on the show. 

“There’s so much about ‘Sea Mink-ettes’ that appeals to everyone regardless of race, gender, sexuality. Perfection can be beautiful, but holding ourselves to those unrealistic levels keeps us from having human moments. We are just as fierce in all the moments.

“You gotta be that boss bitch, but you need rest at times too,” she adds. 

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