December 28, 2018 at 10:57 am EST | by Patrick Folliard
Queer theater pros wow in varied productions

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

Throughout 2018, some LGBT actors made marvelous star turns while others stalwartly succeeded at supporting roles in myriad Washington-area productions. Less visible, but equally important, were the many out directors, designers and playwrights without whom nothing much happens. 

The always terrific Jon Hudson Odom, a longtime Washington actor who decamped for Chicago several months ago, marvelously tackled the title role in Nathan Alan Davis’ “Nat Turner in Jerusalem” at Forum Theatre in the spring. Staged by out director José Carrasquillo, the exquisitely rendered piece concerns the last hours in the life of prisoner Turner, a condemned slave and educated minister who led the famed 1831 slave rebellion in Southampton County, Va.  

Jon Hudson Odom in ‘Nat Turner in Jerusalem.’ (Photo by Teresa Castracane Photography; courtesy Form)

Odom was equally memorable as another title character in Woolly Mammoth Theatre’s striking staging of Jordan Tannahill’s “Botticelli in the Fire.” Odom fearlessly portrayed legendary painter in this carnal and campy reimagining of historical gay figures in Renaissance Italy. 

Michael Kevin Darnell truly shone in Bosco Brasil’s “New Guidelines for Peaceful Times,” an intense two hander that made its American premiere at Spooky Action Theater in the fall. In a brilliantly nuanced performance, Darnell played Clausewitz, an immigrant from war-torn Poland, eager to charm his way into post-World War II Brazil. 

Michael Kevin Darnall in ‘New Guielines for Peaceful Times’ at Spooky Action Theatre. (Photo by Teresa Castracane)

Karen Harman’s “Roz and Ray” mines the early years of HIV/AIDS in America, focusing primarily on the tragic experience of hemophiliacs and big pharma’s sometimes nefarious involvement. In Theater J’s compelling production, Tom Story played Ray from Texas, the smart but uneducated, bisexual father of hemophilic young twin sons. Ray becomes involved with Roz (Susan Rome), a dedicated pediatric hematologist/oncologist. In playing Ray, Story told the Blade he was definitely treading on new territory and liked it. 

Round House Theatre’s summer production “The Legend of Georgia McBride” was an LGBT collaboration. Penned by Matthew Lopez, directed by Tom Story and choreographed by Matthew Gardiner, the sweet story of a failed Elvis impersonator unwittingly turned solvent drag star, featured a talented, hardworking cast that included Desi Bing who played boozy drag performer Rexy and Rick Hammerly as self-proclaimed grande dame of drag, Miss Tracy Mills.

In Woolly Mammoth’s production of out playwright Branden Jacob-Jenkins dramedy “Gloria,” the reliably first-rate Justin Weaks displayed his versatility playing several characters including a quiet, Harvard-educated intern shot dead by a crazy coworker. And more recently at Round House Theatre, Weaks played Citizen Barlow, a man in spiritual turmoil who doesn’t realize the vastness of his adventure, in “Gem of the Ocean,” August Wilson’s ninth play in his Pittsburgh-set 10-play cycle examining African-American life in the United States during the 20th century.

Out playwright Ken Urban’s “The Remains,” an exploration of the internal and external pressures surrounding same-sex marriage, made its world premiere in a terrific production at Studio Theatre last winter. The comedy about the tragedy of love starred Maulik Pancholy (“Weeds,” “30 Rock,” “Star Trek: Discovery”) as rising literature professor Kevin and Glenn Fitzgerald (“Dirty Sexy Money,” “Six Feet Under”) as his lawyer husband Theo.

And, again in 2018, out actors took on the classics. 

Early in 2018, Michael Urie, a familiar face from TV sitcoms and Broadway, played the coveted lead in the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s “Hamlet.” Set in a sleekly designed police state, the production was staged by the company’s out artistic director Michael Kahn. While Urie received reviews ranging from madcap to commanding, he relayed in an interview with the Blade that he was very satisfied with the production. Would he assay Hamlet again in the future? “Never say never,” he said.

Michael Urie, gay news, Washington Blade

Michael Urie in ‘Hamlet.’ (Photo by Tony Powell; courtesy STC)

Holly Twyford was a standout as the obsessively driven Constance in Folger Theatre’s “King John,” one of Shakespeare’s rarely produced works. Smartly staged by Aaron Posner, the quick-paced, thrilling account of court and familial struggles surrounding the English crown, left one wondering why this early history play isn’t mounted more often. 

Out directors soared in 2018. 

At Shakespeare Theatre Company, Alan Paul staged one of the year’s best — Shakespeare’s “The Comedy Errors” set in 1960s Athens. A fabulous cast included out actors Tom Story playing an effete jeweler and hilarious Sarah Marshall as a sham exorcist. 

At Signature Theatre, director Matthew Gardiner charmed audiences with a delightful production of Todd Almond’s musical “Girlfriend,” a gay love story about two very different teenage boys whose unlikely friendship blossoms into a full-blown romance. 

Gardiner also helmed Signature’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Passion,” a musical about Giorgio, a handsome young officer, who rather inexplicably falls in love with his commanding officer’s sickly cousin. The exquisitely staged piece featured handsome out Broadway actor Claybourne Elder and Natascia Diaz who’s likely to garner awards for her Fosca. 

And Gardiner closed the year with “Billy Elliot The Musical” (also at Signature). Set in Northern England during the 1980s miners’ strike, it’s the story of a working-class boy who’s a natural at ballet. 

The year has proved a fine time for up-and-coming, local LGBT actors to show their stuff. Jade Jones played Senior Duke in Keegan Theatre’s “As You Like It,” a pop/rock musical take on the Bard’s romantic comedy by New York singer/songwriter Shaina Taub. In Signature’s “Girlfriend,” Jimmy Mavrikes was terrific as Will, an unfocussed but clever gay outcast who lands the closeted popular jock. And Ben Gunderson was a standout as the tap-dancing purser in Arena Stage’s hit production of Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes.” 

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