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Folger’s ‘Nell Gwynn’ is madcap historical backstage story

Snappy Euro import is broad, bawdy and rife with innuendo

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Nell Gwynn review, gay news, Washington Blade
Alison Luff as Nell in Folger Theatre’s production of Jessica Swale’s comedy Nell Gwynn. (Photo by Brittany Dilibrto; courtesy Folger)

‘Nell Gwynn’ 
Through March 10
Folger Theatre 
201 E. Capitol St. SE 
$42-85
202-544-7077

Nell Gwynn. The name is more than a theatrical history footnote. She was the longtime lover of a king and among the first women to stride the English stage. 

It’s the 1660s. After a dozen years of Puritan rule, monarchy is restored. And under theater-loving King Charles II, London show biz is in full swing again. A part of that means allowing women, not just men, to play female characters. Pretty, witty Nell Gwynn is in the right place at the right time.

Her story (or close to it) is currently being told at Folger Theatre in Jessica Swale’s 2015 comedy with music, aptly titled “Nell Gwynn.” 

After sumptuous crimson curtains part, we meet our lowborn heroine selling oranges, and sometimes herself, at King’s Theater. Feisty and good looking, she catches the eye of the company’s handsome leading man Charles Hart (Quinn Franzen). Whether impelled by lust or interest in incipient talent, Hart deigns to teach Nell the fundamentals of hammy acting. She’s a natural: Luff’s Nell cries on command. 

At Duke’s Theater (the competition), ticket sales skyrocket after a woman is cast in their latest offering. In response, King’s Theater’s seasoned manager Thomas Killigrew (Nigel Gore) pushes saucy Nell on the boards. Her propitious debut prompts Hart to exalt: “They’ve never seen anything like it. You were luminous. And you were real. A real woman. … It changes everything.” 

And indeed, it does. Never one to overlook a pretty woman, King Charles (a gloriously bewigged R.J. Foster) wastes no time in meeting Nell and makes her an offer she eventually cannot refuse. And as her acting star rises, Nell demands dim, derivative resident playwright John Dryden (reliably funny Michael Glenn) write more significant parts for women. 

As played by lovely Luff, it’s easy to see why both king and audience are smitten. There’s none of the confusion that surrounds Edward’s obsession with Mrs. Simpson, or another Charles’s attraction to the woman whom his first wife dubbed the rotteweiler, but I digress. Graceful with a flair for the ribald, Luff radiates warmth and intelligence. 

Swale’s play, a big hit across the pond, is a double-barreled backstage story. Madcap happenings and debate in the theater’s dressing room include former leading lady Edward Kynaston, played by local out actor Christopher Dinolfo, who rails against his relegation to playing female walk-ons, skimpy parts he endows with elaborate backstories. Also, on hand for Nell’s meteoric ascent are faithful costume mistress Nancy (Catherine Flye), Nell’s scrappy sister Rose (the excellent Caitlin Cisco) and happy-go-lucky young actor Ned Spigget (Alex Michell).  

Meanwhile at court, King Charles, insatiable cocksman and circumspect politician, successfully juggles an angry Queen Catherine (Zoe Speas), ambitious mistress Lady Castlemaine (Regina Aquino) and scheming advisor Lord Arlington (Jeff Keogh). Unexpected visitors include Nell’s gin-soaked mother (again Flye) and a new French mistress (also Aquino). Despite the insanity, Nell finds love. 

The humor is broad, bawdy and rife with innuendo. The King’s Theater acting troupe might have easily been played by the cast of British TV’s “Are You Being Served?” with a young Lulu guest starring as Nell. 

Though some gags are interminably milked, it’s a mostly light but engaging work whose enjoyable score sets racy lyrics to catchy melodies.  

Through the laughs, Swales portrays Nell as a groundbreaking player who helps define women’s role in theater. Director Robert Richmond’s able staging includes haunting sequences that reveal the other Nell — an artist with an inner life, enormously loyal and capable of falling in love. 

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Theater

‘Blindness’ explores a terrifying new pandemic

Sidney Harman Hall production features immersive sound, light installation

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The audience takes the stage in ‘Blindness.’ (Photo by Helen Maybanks)

‘Blindness’
Through June 13
Shakespeare Theatre Company
Sidney Harman Hall
610 F St., N.W.
$44-54
Shakespearetheatre.org

Masks and social distancing, yes, but I never expected a return to live theater to include a stage without actors and an audience seated onstage. But that’s exactly how it went it down on a recent sunny Saturday morning in Washington.

We longed for something, and after a year of indisputably warranted darkness, the Shakespeare Theatre Company (STC) has obliged by reopening Sidney Harman Hall with Donmar Warehouse’s terrifyingly enthralling production of “Blindness,” an immersive sound and light installation anchored by Juliet Stevenson’s astonishing recorded vocal performance heard — jarringly, soothingly, eerily — through binaural headphones.

Adapted by Simon Stephens from Nobel Prize winner José Saramago’s same-titled dystopian novel, and staged by Walter Meierjohann (“The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time”), the London born, 75-minute tale begins with narrator Stevens matter-of-factly relaying the details surrounding the outbreak of a pandemic that causes blindness. What starts off as an alarming, isolated incident, rapidly devolves into something all-encompassing and petrifying.

Uncannily, Saramago’s 1995 book, both looks back to plague stories and prophetically toward COVID-19.
In addition to narrator, Stevenson (an Olivier Award-winning stage actor also known for films like “Truly, Madly, Deeply”) plays the wife of an ophthalmologist whose office is where patient zero spreads the disease to various other patients – a little cross-eyed boy, an alluring young woman hiding a case of conjunctivitis behind dark sunglasses, a thief, an older gent sporting an eye patch, and sundry others.

The doctor’s wife, who is immune to the new sight-stealing disease, is doomed/blessed to become the lone eyewitness to violence, injustices, and death as the situation becomes progressively scary, primitive, and dangerous.

Rather than darkness, the afflicted are submerged into a world of milky whiteness. The pandemic – a new pathogen whose means of transmission is unknown – moves quickly throughout the city, then the nation, and beyond. Early in the outbreak, the health ministry is reluctant to get too involved, choosing instead to minimize the seriousness of what’s happening. Sounds familiar, I know.

Like the story, Jessica Hung Han Yun’s lighting design becomes increasingly menacing as things move along. Originally playfully colorful fluorescent tubes suspended high from the ceiling, they turn stark white and are lowered to audience members’ line of sight. Then they are darkened altogether, interrupted by occasional bright colorless flashes.

Through headphones, the audience hears rain storms, harsh announcements, barricades being dragged, screams, sobs, footsteps, and gunshots. At times, Stevenson whispers in your ear. Once, I mechanically answered “Yes, I’m here.”

Masked, seated often in total darkness, headphones, it’s immersive, sometimes claustrophobically so. (If it becomes too much, there’s a flash light attached to the leg of each metal chair. Turn it on and an usher will escort you off the stage.)

During the pandemic STC has developed health and safety measures that include masks, air filtration, social distancing, etc.

For “Blindness” only 40 patrons are allowed per viewing. No one is seated next to someone outside of their own party, and a limited number of single tickets are available for purchase by calling the box office. Headsets, seats, and flashlights are disinfected before every performance, and all bathrooms and lobby spaces will be cleaned prior to the next seating group enters the building.

Exiting the Harman, you might think how odd it is to have been on stage before the actors’ union has allowed them to perform indoors before a live audience.

Outdoors, the warm wind feels invigorating against your face as you walk down the street. Still, the nearby upscale Mexican restaurant’s windows remain boarded and the half dozen people around you are walking determinedly, all — except one — wearing a mask.

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Theater

Theater that starts uncomfortable conversations

Theater Alliance director on ‘City in Transition’ — 4 plays about D.C.’s quadrants

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Caldwell, gay news, Washington Blade

Raymond O. Caldwell is the producing artistic director of Theater Alliance.

‘City in Transition: The Quadrant Series’

Streaming from April 24-May 24

Theater Alliance

Theateralliance.com

Recently, a Facebook post asked “Are there any activist theaters in D.C.?” A local actor quickly replied. “There’s only one,” she wrote. “It’s Theater Alliance.”

During a phone interview from his home in Anacostia last week, Theater Alliance’s producing artistic director Raymond O. Caldwell, addressed the social media query: “We keep our heads down and do the work. Well before the pandemic, we were trying to have conversations about race in America. Then it seemed niche work. Now that work is in vogue. There might come a time when it’s no longer stylish. But that’s OK, we’re ultimately doing it to transform people’s lives and start conversations.

“Our plays won’t change the world. Straight up. But we can start conversations that are uncomfortable and don’t have easy answers. And by partnering our productions with various nonprofits, we’re able to involve people in the movement whether it’s on the front line or stuffing envelopes.”

In residence at Anacostia Playhouse, Theater Alliance’s mission is to illuminate the experiences, philosophies, and interests of D.C.’s diverse population. When Caldwell, who is gay, took helm of the company in January 2019, the organization was already steeped in diversity. He’s worked to continue and expand on that, creating a cultural institution that’s invited in the surrounding, mostly Black community.

The company kicked off its virtual season in December with eight pieces about protest centered around the demands of the Black Lives Matter movement. Having started off nationally, they’re now moving locally with “City in Transition: The Quadrant Series,” a 90-minute intersection of theater and film directed by Caldwell.

Part of the multi-Helen Hayes Award-winning company’s Hothouse new play development series, “City in Transition” consists of four filmed plays about Washington’s quadrants, SE, SW, NE, and NW written by local black playwrights Khadijah Z. Ali-Coleman, Avery Collins, Shalom Omo-Osagie, and Leslie Scott-Jones.

The not long pieces are set in the present, past, and future. Topics include Black nonprofits battling to get funding via a game show; the meeting of hip-hop artists and violence set against the gentrified waterfront; a wealthy Black family debating whether to transform its landmark Black property into a trendy lounge for whites; and a white census taker discussing the changing city and current protests with a Black Washington native.

“Almost 13 years ago, I came to D.C. to be in Chocolate City but to my surprise, it wasn’t here,” says Caldwell, 37.

“When I think about a city changing and moving through gentrification, what concerns me is the loss of history, the stories of the folks who once lived here disappear.

“And interestingly, as D.C. gentrifies, we start noticing an uptick of murals and Black aesthetic of the city. It allows liberal yuppies to feel they’re in an urban environment but forgetting the rich history particularly for Black people in DC.”
He initially came to Washington for a six-month fellowship but stayed on. After six years at

Arena Stage, desirous to work outside of a white space, he began teaching at Howard University.

At Howard, his work centered on the universality of storytelling. “I pitched what folks would consider white work like Lillian Hellman’s provocatively lesbian-themed play, ‘The Children’s Hour.’”

“I’d ask my predominantly Black audience to imagine ourselves there as well, and they would.

The audience left thinking the play was written by a Black woman. It was additionally powerful because we in the Black community have trouble talking about homosexuality.”

As gay, Black, and Asian, Caldwell sometimes refers to himself as third culture: “Being who I am allows more space for me to see biases. I go into work asking myself what are the opportunities for transformation within me and the ensemble of artists I’ll be working with?”

Born in Germany to a German-Filipino mother and African-American father, he mostly grew up in Germany but spent summers with his father in the U.S. At 13, he went to live with his father.

“He thought I’d had enough of the European experience and wanted to teach me what it was to be a Black man in the world. And interestingly, that became the center of my activism.”

Caldwell’s American grandmother described him like this: “That boy can’t help but livin’.”

It’s true, he keeps busy, says Caldwell. He doesn’t turn down too many projects. “I’m honored to be creating art. There are so many ideas I want to push and propagate and now having a space and platform makes it especially hard to say no. It’s a good place to be.”

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Theater

‘Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter’ a raucous, transgressive romance

GALA Hispanic Theatre debuts second live performance since COVID

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Aunt Julia, gay news, Washington Blade

Carlos Castillo (seated) and Delbis Cardona. (Photo by Daniel Martinez)

‘Tía Julia y el escribidor’ / ‘Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter’
In person April 22-May 9 ($45)
Online starting May 5 ($25)
GALA Hispanic Theatre
3333 14th St., NW
Galatheatre.org

When GALA Hispanic Theatre reopened its doors in the fall, the actors performed in a giant plexiglass box. And now, for the Columbia Heights company’s second live performance production, what looks like “a giant sneeze guard” separates the action on stage from the audience.

Opening next week, Caridad Svich’s eponymous adaptation of Nobel Prize-winning writer Mario Vargas Llosa’s autobiographical coming-of-age novel “Tía Julia y el escribidor, or “Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter,” is a raucously funny, transgressive yet tender romance.

A fun workplace story set against the radio-novela focused world of 1950s Lima, it’s the story of Mario, an aspiring young writer who embarks on an ardent affair with Julia, his alluring, older aunt by marriage.

The production’s out director José Zayas knows the story well.

He first encountered this peek into Vargas Llosa’s youth with “Tune in Tomorrow,” an Americanized 1990 screen adaptation (relocated to New Orleans) starring Keanu Reeves and Barbara Hershey. Smitten with the film, Zayas promptly sought out the source material: “It’s an especially autobiographical, genuine Latin American comedy. Truly a delightful work to encounter.”

When tapped to direct something for Repertorio Español’s 2015 season, Zayas requested that longtime collaborator Svich adapt “Tía Julia.” Both she and the esteemed New York theater agreed.

“We’re very simpatico,” he says. Zayas and Svich are equally adroit in Spanish and English, and together they share a passion for classic Hollywood screwball comedies like “The Frontpage,” “Twentieth Century,” and “His Girl Friday,” and their love for the genre is evident all over the play and production.

“It’s an especially unique adaptation with different influences coming into play,” says Zayas, a Harvard grad who was born in Puerto Rico, grew up in the U.S. Virgin Islands, and now lives in New York. “It’s one of the interesting things that happens when you adapt in the United States and you’re working in Spanish – the rhythms are different.

“And while there’s nothing explicitly LGBTQ about the play, besides me and some of the cast,” he adds, “it has a feel — the fascination with the comedies of the period — the strong women of the time like Rosalind Russell, the style, and form of it. It’s all there, maybe coded, but there.”

Already in rehearsal at GALA when COVID hit in March 2020, the presented in Spanish with English surtitles production was postponed until now. Resuming rehearsals after a long break means hearing the play in new voices, new ideas, new textures, and in some cases new cast members, says Zayas. Fortunately, out actor Carlos Castillo, a talented GALA vet, remains in the role of young Mario’s mentor, the exceedingly eccentric scriptwriter Pedro Camacho.

Zayas adds, “Before the show was cast, I immediately saw Carlos as Pedro. He’s biting into the part and loving it.”

Zayas also staged GALA’s reopening in October with “El Perro del Hortelano” (“The Dog in the Manger”), a classic Spanish comedy. Part of a pilot program, the show observed myriad safety protocols including masks, socially distanced seating, and a dramatically improved air filtration system. Zayas conferred with out set designer Clifton Chadick on a contained terrarium like set that addressed the concerns of COVID-19 while telling the story in a modern light.

For “Tía Julia,” safety measures are again in place (though now there will be 50 rather than 25 seats available per performance in the 364-seat house). Moreover, Zayas and Chadick are reunited. “This time,” Zayas says “there’s a giant sneeze guard between the stage and the house. In the context of the play, it feels like the audience is in the radio studio watching through glass. It makes sense. I think we came up with a fun way of doing it. “

Much of Zayas’ career has been making theater for Spanish speaking and Latinx audiences. “It’s tricky. While you want to get as broad a base as possible, I find it edifying to have these conversations with Spanish speakers. But I like to invite others to join in too. See, it’s a little complicated.”

“But ultimately, theater is about experience and connection. Being an adventurous theatergoer is really exciting. It makes you a better listener and a better person – you become more empathetic, attuned to language, and different behaviors. And this is one more connection.”

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