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Director Alan Paul enjoying frothy romp ‘The Comedy of Errors’

Theater bug bit Michael Kahn protege at young age

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Alan Paul interview, gay news, Washington Blade

Alan Paul says a ‘60s Greek aesthetic has informed much of his work. (Photo courtesy STC)

‘The Comedy of Errors’ 

 

Through Oct. 28

 

Shakespeare Theatre Company 

 

at Lansburgh Theatre

 

450 7th St., N.W. 

 

$44-118

 

Shakespearetheatre.org 

Director Alan Paul came out at just 15. He was the last of his group at performing arts camp to come clean on his sexuality. The rest had all come out at about 12, he says. Paul felt quite left behind. Certainly he’s never been behind professionally. 

At 25, Paul was named Shakespeare Theatre Company associate artistic director under the auspices of legendary STC Artistic Director Michael Kahn. Now 34, Paul boasts an impressive CV crammed with work on classics, opera and musicals. He’s been nominated for several Helen Hayes Awards for directing and won for STC’s “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.” His more recent production of “Camelot” has broken STC box office records.

Growing up in nearby Potomac, Md., Paul made frequent trips to New York to see Broadway musicals. He loved “Sunset Boulevard” with Glenn Close as Norma Desmond but was verily obsessed with the London cast recording featuring Patti LuPone as the reclusive silent film star. From an early age, Paul longed to be a part of the theater world and struck up correspondences with many Broadway professionals. After graduating from Northwestern University where he was in the musical theater program, Paul returned to his hometown to pursue a career in earnest. He splits his time between Washington and New York where he’s often called to meet with designers and audition actors.

Currently, Paul is staging STC’s production of Shakespeare’s early work “The Comedy of Errors,” a farce jam-packed with slapstick and mistaken identity revolving around two sets of identical twins. A twin himself, Paul felt instantly at home with the work’s situations and possibilities.

Recently he took a break from tech week to talk about his latest directorial effort and other things.  

WASHINGTON BLADE: I read that you wanted to plumb the work for its romantic and elegant elements. True?

ALAN PAUL: Those were early words. When you see the fart jokes you won’t think elegance. It’s a difficult play because it has to be funny but it also has to be about real people. The characters are searching for lost loved ones. The premise is deep. The comedy of it is what happens in the course of this crazy 24 hours. But there is elegance in the physical production. I wanted a mostly black-and-white set and costumes. I’m inspired by films from the early ‘60s like the Greek romantic comedy “Never on a Sunday” starring Melina Mercouri. 

BLADE: Is it wrong to associate you primarily with musicals?

PAUL: I’ve directed many plays but musicals have been the most visible thing I’ve done. I love both. It’s fun to jump back and forth. In addition to Michael (Kahn), my heroes include Jack O’Brien. He directed “Hairspray” and “Henry IV” on Broadway in the same year. And Michael Blakemore who on the same night won Tony Awards for directing a play and a musical, “Copenhagen” and a revival of “Kiss Me, Kate,” respectively. People mistakenly think a director of musicals can’t be serious or real. Or a play director can’t be fun. I try really hard to play both sides of that. For “The Comedy of Errors,” we’re including some original music. It’s about creating that ‘60s Greek feeling. Also, the cast includes Eleasha Gamble who plays the courtesan and owner of the Porcupine Club. How could I not give her a song?

BLADE: You’re a twin. Has that been your way into “The Comedy of Errors”?

PAUL: Yes, I have a twin sister. For me, I understand the bond with my sister. The bond is different from what I have with anyone else. We share a sense of humor. If you looked at our text messages you’d have no idea what it means but we think it’s hilarious. Twins figure into so many of Shakespeare’s plays. I think Shakespeare had twins and one of them died. This play, and “Twelfth Night” especially, is about needing to find your other half. Shakespeare had a fantasy of family coming back together that never happened. I believe it comes from an extraordinary sense of loss. 

BLADE: How did you go about casting twins?

PAUL: I’ve cast two sets of twins who look nothing alike. Put the same hat on them and who cares? We get it.  

BLADE: Tell me about how Michael Kahn hired you. 

PAUL: It was over drinks at Playbill Café. I miss that place so much. Not a big deal for him, but life changing for me. 

BLADE: This is Michael Kahn’s last season at STC. What has he taught you?

PAUL: He pushed me very hard when I was very young to run the department. He gave me a lot of responsibility and expected me to know what I was doing. I figured out how to do it and I think that he gave me a lot of confidence early on. Also, I will take away his incredibly high standards. He won’t let anything go that does meet a certain standard. And I have that myself. An internal GPS that says “not good enough.” 

BLADE: Will you work under Kahn’s appointed successor, Simon Godwin?

PAUL: That’s an ongoing conversation. I like him and am excited to see what he’ll do. 

BLADE: Was directing The Comedy of Errors your choice?

PAUL: STC wasn’t doing a musical this season so I knew I’d do a play. I really wanted to do Shakespeare so Michael and I talked about a lot of different titles. Comedies to dramas. We hadn’t done this one in a long time. I thought it was a great way to open the season and I wanted to assemble a group of funny people that the audience would know. It’s always fun to have artists on stage together who have contributed to the success of STC. People like Tom Story, Nancy Robinette, Ted van Griethuysen, Sarah Marshall. 

BLADE: And don’t forget Veanne Cox as Adriana.

PAUL: Yes, wait until you see her arguing with a parrot. She has a pet bird that talks to her. 

BLADE: Last season you broke Shakespeare Theatre Company sales record with your production of “Camelot.” How do you explain that?

PAUL: The election. I’d been uncertain about doing “Camelot.” People love the music but not so much the book. But when Hillary Clinton lost the election, I couldn’t help but wonder what Obama was thinking about his legacy. That’s what King Arthur goes through at the end of the play. When the Round table is cracked he says that barbarism is the natural state of man. Then at the end of the scene he meets the kid and his spirit is revived. I thought that’s the story Washington needed to hear. And I was right. 

BLADE: There are so many shows opening right about now. Why see “The Comedy of Errors”?

PAUL: Well, it’s short — 95 action-packed minutes. Nobody wants to see a really long play. With this production, you’re out in time to get drinks or supper. Also, it’s funny. In these times of the stressful news cycle, I want to give people some entertainment and joy. 

BLADE: Tell me about your childhood letter writing. 

PAUL: Yes, I have a whole book of correspondence, about one hundred letters. I started writing letter c/o the stage door when I was a kid. I wrote stage managers, a dance captain and actors like George Hearn. I have letters from Audra McDonald before she was famous. Bob Mackie wrote me. I wanted to know how things worked. 

BLADE: How does being gay figure into your work?

PAUL: Freedom to have fun with sexuality. Someone in the show accused me of trying to make this into a John Waters’ movie. I said that’s a good thing. There’s lots of drag. Sarah Marshall plays a man, Dr. Pinch. Three men double as female characters. 

BLADE Any directorial projects you’re itching to tackle?

PAUL Yes, two musical and a play. In keeping with my Greek ‘60s film thing, I’d like to do the musical “Zorba.” And another is “Golden Boy,” the musical based the Clifford Odets play about a young man from Harlem who pursues prizefighting despite his family’s objections. It needs a little doctoring, but I think that would make a wonderful Broadway revival. And the play is “Teenage Dick.” It’s got a provocative title but it’s actually a version of Shakespeare’s “Richard III” set in an American high school. It played at the Public Theater in New York this summer. Please someone in Washington let me do this. It will be a huge hit in this town, I’m certain. 

The cast of ‘The Comedy of Errors,’ a brisk farce now on the boards at Shakespeare Theatre Co. (Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy STC)

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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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Playwright pays tribute to gay grandfather in new Round House show

‘Jennifer, Who Is Leaving’ marks Gould’s first return to D.C. since 2017

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Morgan Gould (Photo courtesy of Gould)

‘Jennifer, Who Is Leaving’
April 28 & 30
Round House Theatre
4545 East-West Highway
Bethesda, Md. 20814
Roundhousetheatre.org

Morgan Gould is an enthusiastic LGBTQ ally and it’s reflected in her work. 

With “Jennifer, Who Is Leaving,” the New York-based playwright pays tribute to her gay grandfather. Billed as a developmental reading in Round House Theatre’s National Capital New Play Festival, the piece marks Gould’s first professional return D.C. since 2017 when Studio Theatre presented “I Wanna Fucking Tear You Apart,” her daring dive into the often-complex relationships of plus-sized women and their gay male best friends. 

Gould says, “A woman who is fat and has five gay men in her favorites on her iPhone is an ally and that’s me.” She adds that a continuation of gay themes in her plays makes perfect sense — “That’s my thing. It’s what I know about.” 

Prior to the reading, Gould, who is also directing, will have a week to rehearse with an “embarrassingly good cast” comprised of local talent Floyd King, Nancy Robinette, Kimberly Gilbert, and Annie Fang. The two readings (April 28 and 30) will be separated by an extra day of rehearsal when Gould will most likely make some changes to the script.

In addition to five readings, the new play festival features two fully staged world premieres through May 8: Tim J. Lord’s “We declare you a terrorist…” and Charly Evon Simpson’s “it’s not a trip it’s a journey.”  

WASHINGTON BLADE: Hey, Morgan. What’s new?

MORGAN GOULD: I still have many gay friends. Two guys call me about 14 times a day. That’s not new, but COVID has turned me into a Facetime gal versus a hang out with friends in the living room kind of gal.  

And since theater hasn’t been a thing, really, I’ve spent most of the pandemic working on TV stuff. I wrote on the adaptation of “A League of Their Own” starring Abby Jacobson who’s also head writer. It’s coming out in July on Amazon. I haven’t seen it yet, so hopefully it’s good. Like the film but with different characters, and retains the same feminist vibe.

BLADE: So, when did you write “Jennifer, Who Is Leaving”? 

GOULD: I wrote the first draft before the pandemic. This was the last thing I brought into class as a playwrighting fellow at Juilliard before graduating in 2019. I’d written intense personal stuff, and a lot about being fat. Why not give myself a fun breath of fresh air? My gay grandfather was probably the funniest person I’ve ever known. Still, this play becomes intense. I can’t help it.

BLADE: Tell us about your gay grandfather. 

GOULD: His name was Joey. He died at 90-something in 2008. He and his partner Bob were very over-the-top gay men who never said they were gay. He always introduced Bob as his nephew. Bob designed shoes and my grandfather designed wedding dresses. They had a little dog. They weren’t straight. 

My grandfather was performatively snobby. When dementia put him in a nursing home his catty sense of humor took a crazy turn. He could be off the wall inappropriate. As teenagers, my sister and I thought it was hilarious. My mother, of course, was mortified.

BLADE: Is your new play about that?

GOULD: It’s based on my grandfather’s relationship to a woman who was his nurse’s aide in the nursing home, as well as the ways women take care of men. There are three generations of women in the play who all in some fashion have a relation to caretaking for men.  

It takes place late night at a Dunkin’ Donuts. A crazy snowstorm forces the old man and the nurse’s aide to pull over and ride out the blizzard surrounded by donuts. The night manager is an older woman. I’m from Massachusetts and worked at Dunkin’ Donuts when I was young. It seems there was one on almost every corner. 

BLADE: Have you been to D.C. since your play at Studio? 

GOULD: It’s my first time back to work on one of my projects. I’ve been to see my boyfriend Mike Daisey’s shows. He’s a monologist who has performed at Woolly Mammoth and more recently Arena. D.C. is great. I like the restaurants, especially Le Diplomate and weirdly the little dim sum place near Studio. 

BLADE: What do you expect from Round House’s new play festival? 

GOULD: Ultimately, I hope to walk out with a script that says this is ready for production and hopefully some theater will do it. That’s the dream.

There’s a lot out of my control. But yeah, I think people will like it. It’s a hopeful play with a dark night of the soul. 

BLADE: Anything else?

GOULD: What is the runtime you ask? 75 minutes, babe. No intermission. 

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