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Young actress relishes role in new Rorschach production ‘She Kills Monsters’

Essay on grief finds sisters discovering each other via Dungeons & Dragons

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She Kills Monsters, gay news, Washington Blade
Alanna McNaughton (center) in ‘She Kills Monsters.’ (Photo courtesy Ryan Maxwell Photography)

‘She Kills Monsters’
Through Nov. 10
Rorschach Theatre 
Atlas Performing Arts Center 
1333 H St., N.E.
$10-40

The title sounds scary. But in fact, Qui Nguyen’s play is a comedy about grief. 

Granted, sometimes grief can be frightening — overwhelming, enveloping and seemingly endless. But Nguyen sets a funny, stage combat-filled 1990s story against the world of Dungeons & Dragons (D&D), the fantasy, role-playing table top game in which geeks become warriors. 

Bored with her life in Athens, Ohio, Agnes Evans yearns for a change when suddenly her entire family, including 15-year-old younger sister Tilly, is wiped out in a car crash. 

Fast-forward three years and Agnes, still grappling with grief, is teaching at Tilly’s high school. While cleaning out the family home, she comes across Tilly’s D&D module (essentially a notebook containing a game scenario) and with the help of a D& D player, delves into a part of her late sister’s life that she never knew. 

Now at Rorschach Theatre, “She Kills Monsters” is directed by Randy Baker and features Christina Day as Agnes and Alanna McNaughton as Tilly. 

“I love Tilly,” says McNaughton, a queer actor who has lived in D.C. since January. “This play and Tilly have been on my radar for a while.” 

In the game, says McNaughton, 23, Tilly is a strong knight who carries a broad sword. And because she’s also the dungeon master, she has created a fantasy land of queer empowerment exclusively inhabited by gay characters, and a safe space to come out. 

Inspired by high school archetypes, the production’s costumes use elements associated with power, but reclaim them for the nerds and the queers, McNaughton says. Tilly wears spray-painted football shoulder pads stolen from a jock and is rocking a Breeders band T-shirt. 

While exploring Tilly’s world of D&D, straight Agnes sees a lot: After catching her younger sister making out with her demon queen girlfriend, she encounters a demon man who loves men and meets a flirty elf who insists Agnes just hasn’t met the right girl yet.  

Unlike Tilly, who acknowledged her burgeoning sexuality in small-town Ohio, McNaughton explored her identity in a less threatening environment. Part of a liberal family in California’s Bay Area, McNaughton sort of came out in middle school. When her mom reacted “Honey, we all love our girlfriends,” McNaughton was comforted but dissatisfied with the reply.

It was while studying theater and political science at Boston University that McNaughton began to actively explore queer history, queer spaces and talk about her identity. It’s also where she played the lead “Hamlet” in a program called Femina Shakes.  

“I was a broody young gal, so a character who is so caught in their own mind appealed to me,” she says. “Working with an all-female design team and all non-cis male performers was an empowering way to play the part.”

Another seminal college acting experience for McNaughton, was assaying Edward/Betty in brilliant British playwright Caryl Churchill’s “Cloud Nine.” 

“As a queer performer, it was exciting to play both a young boy who is figuring out his identity and sexuality, and a closed-off, uptight older woman who’s trying to figure out her life,” she says. 

When not acting, the high energy McNaughton works in a reproductive health space in D.C. She finds both endeavors to be complementary and maintains that her day job informs the type of work she does as a performer.

While “She Kills Monsters” mostly focuses on Agnes’ growth, McNaughton says it’s an opportunity to watch powerful queer characters living fulfilling, magical, adventuresome lives as humans and monsters without the burden of their whole story being about their identity. They just get to be. 

“It’s relatable to anyone who has ever dealt with grief, felt like an outcast or identified as a nerd. That’s a lot of Venn diagram overlaps.”

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Theater

Actor overcomes car accidents to thrive in ‘Beautiful’

Bobby Smith on the infectious happiness of Olney production

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Bobby Smith in ‘Beautiful.’ (Photo courtesy of Teresa Castracane Photography)

‘Beautiful: The Carole King Musical’
Through July 25
Olney Theatre Center
2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney, MD 20832
$31 -101
Olneytheatre.org

As Bobby Smith describes it, “not too long ago, some things tripped me up.”

In late 2023, the celebrated, out actor was involved in two very serious car accidents and suffered severe injuries. And then May brought the unexpected death of his beloved Vizsla hound Mabel, named for the heroine in Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Pirates of Penzance.”

So, for much of 2024, Smith had been spending time healing at his farmhouse in Ellicott City, Md. Until now. Currently, he’s back on the boards at Olney Theatre Center playing record producer Don Kirshner in “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical,” a fun juke box musical about the early career years of singer/songwriter King from her Brooklyn roots to writing hits from an office in Times Square with her lyricist husband Gerry Goffin and on to Los Angeles solo-stardom.

WASHINGTON BLADE: Hey Bobby, you’ve been through a lot since we last spoke.

BOBBY SMITH: It’s been a whole lot. I spent the last seven or eight months either at home or going to doctor visits.

BLADE: How is it being back on stage?

SMITH: To be honest, it’s like learning to walk again.

BLADE: And playing the famously deadpan Don Kirshner?

SMITH: It’s good. I don’t do an imitation. Instead, I’ve created a character who’s not over the top; otherwise, it would become the Don Kirshner show and we don’t want that.

But because there’s not a lot of drama with Carole King, she’s a really kind, nice person, Don serves as a sort of catalyst. He pushes the story forward. He prods Carole to write more songs, to try different things. He doesn’t like her boyfriend.  Don the character doesn’t sing much but he’s always barking at people.

BLADE: Sometimes you forget just how many familiar songs King wrote: “Take Good Care of My Baby,” “Up On the Roof,” and “Will You (Still) Love Me Tomorrow” for acts like the Shirelles and The Drifters. And later songs like “It’s Too Late,” “You’ve Got a Friend,” “(You Make Me Feel) Like a Natural Woman,” and of course “Beautiful.”  

SMITH: Yeah, it feels like she wrote every song known to mankind; the show tells you that, and we sing most of them.

BLADE: You experienced a highpoint during the rough times. In May, you won a Helen Hayes Award for playing Bruce, the complicated, manic depressive, closeted father in Studio’s production of Alison Bechdel’s “Fun Home.”

SMITH: I did, but unfortunately, I couldn’t make it to the ceremony.

Bruce is a sympathetic but difficult character. Ever since being born, people of a certain age, have had to fight our way into the struggle of being gay. It’s not so much a struggle anymore, or I should say not as much as it used to be, but now there are a whole lot more signposts that didn’t exist when I was growing up.

Over the years, people have randomly attacked me for not talking more about my sexuality. I’m not closeted but I don’t feel I have to tell everyone. I don’t share it with my land lady. I don’t need to say “I’m here and I’m queer. Here’s your rent.”

BLADE: You have been in show biz for decades now. What keeps you going?

SMITH: I’m not sure, sometimes I ask myself what was I thinking when I decided to be a professional actor? I feel like I’m making a bigger contribution teaching at Catholic University than I did my entire acting career.

Now that I’ve taken over the tap department, I’m full time at Catholic. I’m also teaching Acting the Text, Directing for Musical Theatre, and in the fall, I’ll add Musical Interpretation.

BLADE: In this summer of so many theatrical choices, why see “Beautiful”?

SMITH: Well, if you don’t already know Natalie Weiss who plays Carole, you should. She’s an amazing compelling, vocalist with one of the healthiest singing voices you’ll ever hear, no straining, perfect placement. 

Also, there’s nothing about “Beautiful” that’s going to make you feel bad, or put you in a place where you might think you need to talk to your therapist. That’s not going to happen. And it’s because Carole King is a positive human being; from an actor’s perspective, you feel great by the end of the show, and the audience gets that. The happiness is infectious.

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Theater

Capital Fringe connects emerging artists with curious audiences

Annual arts festival runs throughout July

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Dancer Wren Coleman in ‘Alone and Together.’ (Photo by Kylene Cleaver)

Capital Fringe
July 11-21
Capitalfringe.org

Throughout July, Capital Fringe, D.C.’s annual edgy performing arts festival, continues its mission of connecting emerging artists with curious audiences. Among this year’s promising lineup, there are works featuring the personal stories and viewpoints of queer performers and theater makers. 

Fringe is daring and experimental, and with tickets at just $15, it’s a bargain to see these mostly new works performed at easily reachable venues including two established spaces at DCJCC (1529 16th St., N.W.), and three stages, Delirium, Bliss, and Laughter, found in a sprawling former retail space at 1150 Connecticut Ave., N.W.   

Included in the offerings is Sharp Dance Company. Helmed by director Diane Sharp-Nachsin, the accomplished group presents “Alone and Together” (July 18-21) at DCJCC in Dupont.  

Sharp company member Wren Coleman, a transmasculine dancer and educator based in Philadelphia, describes the company as very LGBTQ friendly and notes that “Alone and Together” is comprised of five pieces with some of particular interest to queer people. 

“Awakenings,” choreographed by Kevin Ferguson, speaks about his experience coming out as Black gay man. Coleman says “the piece hits me very hard. It talks about the ways how those who’ve loved you your entire life might perceive you and the different stages you go through from the initial anxieties, to finding and expressing queer love. It’s truly a beautiful piece.” 

Sharp Dance Company is Coleman’s dance family. When he came out as both trans and gay, Colman was scared. He says, “because dance is very gendered, I was worried that I might land on the outskirts of the community that I love so very much, but that wasn’t the case. Diane [Sharp-Nachsin] welcomed me with open arms; she’s helped me with my training, and helped me transition from a female-born dancer to a male dancer who dances male roles. She’s been incredibly supportive.” 

At a little over an hour long, “Alone and Together” truly has something for everyone, says Coleman. The company brings together very dynamic, contemporary modern pieces, some more current than others, but all impactful and thought provoking. 

This year marks both the company and Coleman’s second consecutive year at Fringe. Last year, the company was singled out as “Best Dance.” 

“It was an absolutely lovely experience with great crowds, says Coleman. “Since then, some of those audience members have come to see our work in Philadelphia and North Carolina. We’re really grateful to the Washington community.” 

At the Bliss, Rodin Alcerro is directing his new play “Pondering About My Memories” (July 13-21), the story of a 30-year-old man who is remembering his first teenage same-sex crush. “It’s a dialogue a between the present and the past surrounding forbidden love,” Alcerro explains. 

Born and raised in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, Alcerro has lived in D.C. for five years. So far, his theatrical credits are mostly for acting (GALA, Synetic, 1st Stage), but more recently he’s been transitioning from acting to directing and playwriting: “Not long ago, I reached a point in my life where I felt playing a character wasn’t enough to say all the things I wanted to say; I needed to share my own stories, and tell what I feel is necessary to tell.” 

The play’s protagonist is portrayed by Alcerro’s real life partner Pablo Guillen opposite Joshua Cole Lucas as the crush. Alcerro and both actors have experience with acclaimed local movement-based company Synetic, an asset for Alcerro’s very physical play. 

While the two-hander plumbs present and past, it’s not entirely autobiographical: Alcerro says, “That’s the good thing about fiction; it’s a mix of fact and what’s imagined. My play comes from a personal place. The situation and character relate to me as a person but the fiction makes it more interesting, I think.” 

Other Fringe works with queer content include “How to Reinvent Yourself in 5 (not-so) easy steps,” written and performed by Gennie (G) Minzyk; Caitlin Frazier’s “Re: Writing,” a new play about the ethics of writing in which a young queer couple navigates the beginning of a relationship; and Steamworks Productions’ “Existential People,” a Jean-Paul Sartre inspired tale of three gay men (who also happen to be murderers and criminals) as they are led “over the River Styx” into Hades.

 For further details go to Capitalfringe.org

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An autistic, nonbinary, creative type takes center stage in new play

‘Tornado Tastes Like Aluminum Sting’ featured at W.Va. festival

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Playwright Harmon Dot Aut

Contemporary American Theater Festival
Through July 28
Shepherdstown, W.Va.
Catf.org

For their new uniquely titled play, “Tornado Tastes Like Aluminum Sting,” Harmon Dot Aut draws heavily from life. Like the playwright, the new work’s central character Chantal Buñuel, called CB for short, is an autistic, nonbinary creative with synesthesia, a condition that causes some people to experience more than one sense simultaneously (like tasting words for instance).

But how much of Harmon’s three hander, currently making its world premiere at the annual Contemporary American Theater Festival (CATF) at Shepherd University in historic, queer-friendly Shepherdstown, W.Va. (just a 90-minute drive from D.C.), is specifically autobiographical? 

Parts are imagined but location and circumstances are pretty exact, they explain via phone during a rehearsal break. The story unfolds in rural Kansas surrounded by relative poverty; the family doesn’t have much, but they’re loving. 

“Often when I see people depicted from rural areas who don’t have a lot of money, we’re invited to make fun of them. I wanted to make sure I created people who were smart, who fought hard, who loved hard. Who loved their child and had some grace.”

Throughout the 90-minute Oliver Butler-directed production, teenage CB (played by Jean Christian Barry) speaks to the audience in the intimate Studio 112, one of CATF’s smaller spaces, inviting theatergoers into their world, to experience their brain from the inside.   

“It’s not really structured like other plays,” says Harmon, “Chantal is a character you’ve never seen represented on stage before, a story artfully revealed through projections, lights, and live feed. 

“I wanted to give them a sense of self that’s very strong, non-wavering. An asset in less tolerant, rural Kansas. Chantal, who becomes a filmmaker, sees a lot of life through a camera lens. They’re a character who’s autistic and nonbinary but who also has agency, a spark and need to go forward.  I call it ‘the fuck you’ spark. No matter what happens you move forward.”

The Hudson Valley-based playwright wrote their first iteration of “Tornado Tastes Like Aluminum Sting” in 2008. Harmon says “It took a while for folks to get on board, to use the word neurodivergent. That was its genesis. I kept working on it. And now I’m here having it produced, which is fabulous.”

For the young, undiagnosed Harmon, playwriting came instinctively. As a kid they’d record music off the radio and things they’d made up on their Playskool recorder. Then they’d take the tape out and cut and splice and make their own recordings. 

“I was making plays but didn’t know it, trying to understand a world that was incomprehensible to me.”

Harmon studied acting at a small college in Kansas. After graduating, they bravely jumped on a bus and traveled the country. “That was my true education. I was constantly writing, and I did standup.” 

A recipient of a Visionary Playwright Award, and founding member of the notorious gay sketch comedy troupe, Hot Dish! they’re enjoying their time in charming Shepherdstown, an accepting enclave where Confederate banners give way to a sea of rainbows. 

Other CATF offerings include Mark St. Germain’s “The Happiest Man On Earth,” the true story of Holocaust survivor Eddie Jaku. 

Out playwright Donja R. Love’s “What Will Happen To All That Beauty?” is described as an epic work about Black people living with HIV/AIDS exploring “questions of legacy, family, and healing against the haunting landscape of the AIDS crisis of the 80s and its enduring impact.”

Paloma Nozicka’s “Enough To Let The Light In” is a smart, spooky play about “girlfriends Marc and Cynthia who spend an night celebrating a milestone, but over the course of the evening, their lives are irrevocably changed as buried secrets begin to emerge.”

Nozicka, an ardent queer ally based in L.A, says “For a while I’d wanted to write work reflective of queer friends who don’t get to play queer characters. And when they do, they feel it’s tokenism, and that the characters are less than nuanced,” 

She adds “Friends who’ve acted in the play tell me it’s the first time they’ve ever played a lesbian on stage and they’ve been acting twenty years. 

“I feel there should be more opportunities for people to be playing who are they are.”

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