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Young Chinese-American director/playwright explores Irish mythology

‘The Infinite Tales’ at 4615 Theatre Company is world premiere

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gregory keng strasser, gay news, Washington Blade
Gregory Keng Strasser hungers for more international theatrical collaboration. (Photo by Margaret Wroblewski)

The Infinite Tales
Through Dec. 29
4615 Theatre Company 
The Writer’s Center
4508 Walsh St.
Bethesda, Md.
$16.50-20

Out director and playwright Gregory Keng Strasser palpably exudes energy, artistic ambition and curiosity. It’s these traits that fuel his avid pursuit of storytelling and collaboration at home and abroad. 

Strasser, 25,  grew up in Shanghai and Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. After graduating from the University of Michigan with a degree in directing, he relocated to D.C. and became affiliated with the Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics and 4615 Theatre Company. He’s now the 2020 Allen Lee Hughes Directing Fellow at Arena Stage.

Besides Washington, he’s had work produced Bangkok, Holstebro (Denmark), New York City, Ann Arbor and Detroit. 

At age 6, Strasser was introduced to Irish mythology through a beautifully illustrated storybook. The tales impressed him deeply, prompting him to revisit the tales over the years. 

Today he’s directing his own adaptation of those myths titled “The Infinite Tales,” now making its world premiere at 4615 Theatre Company in Bethesda. 

Crossing time and space, “The Infinite Tales” follows the journey of four children cast out from their homeland and cursed to live as swans for 900 years. Facing incredible odds, they remain hopeful that one day they’ll go home again. But over time, their country and its people change, creating additional challenges for the misplaced quartet. It’s a story of place and the Irish diaspora. 

A U Street Corridor resident, Strasser is currently single (he likes guys who wear glasses). And while he has connected with the D.C. theater scene, he’s not averse to taking on additional far-flung gigs.

WASHINGTON BLADE: What is it about Irish mythology for you? 

GREGORY KENG STRASSER: Initially it was that book, “The Names Upon the Harp,” illustrated by P.J. Lynch. The cover features a gorgeous woman casting a spell on four swans. When I stumbled upon it, I already loved fairy tales and the Chinese myths that I’d heard from my mother. But what I liked about these Irish stories is that they weren’t happily ever after. I loved how grown up they were even though they were about magic.

BLADE: When did you first incorporate these legends into your work? 

STRASSER: In my senior year of college, I was tasked with writing a play. Mine was about refugee children and storytelling. I needed something to wrap it up so I finished it off with a story about home, “The Children of Lir,” one of the tales from “The Names Upon the Harp.” I drew from that. My play wasn’t great but it had potential. Even then, I knew it was something I wanted to pursue. But I needed to graduate and do other things first, so I stored it away for a while.

BLADE: What brought you to D.C.?

STRASSER: I needed a job desperately. Shanghai Media Group saw something in me — probably foremost that I speak Mandarin — and they hired me as an assistant content producer. It was a great company to work for even though they were making propaganda, and the job allowed me stability and a way to explore the city. I only stayed with them for six months, but it was my way into D.C. where I found my way into the theater scene. My end goal was always theater. I began networking and eventually met Natsu Onoda Power and Derek Goldman, both playwrights and directors. Through them I was introduced to the Laboratory for Global Performance of Politics at Georgetown University and made connections in Europe and Asia. Also, I became connected with Rorschach Theatre. Rorschach gave me my first production, Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s “410[GONE],” a take on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice set in the world of Chinese mythology and technology. At the time, my family was reeling from a near tragedy, so the experience was cathartic. It was a big play to direct and I was just 23, but it was perfect for me.  

BLADE Would you describe “The Tales of the Infinite” as big? 

STRASSER: Yes, definitely. It’s broad and expansive with music, puppetry and movement that borders on dance. It has a cast of nine. It’s a gigantic adventure, an epic journey, a quest about survival and hope, as well as an internal journey of endurance and the reliance on self and a radical transformation of your heart. It’s born from a deep love of these stories and our shared humanity. We’re on different journeys but we intersect at some point. It’s about those shared intersections.

BLADE: Is there any LGBT content or themes in what you’re doing with the stories?

STRASSER: There is, but you must mine those values. The stories are about homeland, ostracization. I think the older LGBT generation might relate better because they’ve gone through trauma of coming out in an unwelcoming society. And that’s changed a trauma free — well not for everyone everywhere. 

BLADE: And how was coming out for you?

STRASSER: Actually, not easy. I was forced out at 17 when my parents caught me and my then-boyfriend together in my room. My mother is Chinese and very traditional and my father is from the conservative part of Michigan. There were a few tense months at home before I felt for college. Thankfully they didn’t take away my tuition money. I used to believe that my mother was a backward-thinking Trump supporter, the antithesis of me. Then I sat down and did her oral history and realized I was wrong. She survived the Tiananmen Square protests. She was sick of government oppression and having no career opportunities as a woman. She wanted out. So, when she met my white American father and was offered a way to leave, she took it. In her view, I didn’t realize how lucky I was just to be living here. Why make things difficult? My father is naturally curious. He looks for answers, asks people for advice. It’s gotten better. 

BLADE: Is D.C. home ?

STRASSER: It’s a base where I’m building a foundation. There are great opportunities to connect and collaborate here, but I still really want to do things in other countries. I’m in love with the world and in love with international collaboration.

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Theater

In ‘Trans Am,’ a trans person telling a trans story

Lisa Stephen Friday shines in Keegan one-woman show

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Lisa Stephen Friday (Photo by Mike Kozemchak)

TRANS AM
Jan. 29-Feb. 26
Keegan Theatre
1742 Church St. N.W.
$55-$65
Keegantheatre.com

In the fall of 2020, Lisa Stephen Friday’s one-woman show “Trans Am” premiered virtually at Keegan Theatre. “Honestly, streaming a dozen shows isn’t something I want to do again. I was thrilled to do it but performing a live musical with no audience was daunting. Like performing to a black hole. Exhausting.”

But now the trans woman performer is back at Keegan with a live world premiere of the same piece. “Trans Am” is 90 minutes of uninterrupted autobiographical stories and the music of Friday’s cult-favorite NYC glam rock band Lisa Jackson & Girl Friday. 

Her transition hasn’t been easy and that’s reflected in the work, but so is a happy default setting – Friday likes to laugh and make people laugh. The meat of the story is the intensity of time spent in the band, but also her youth in Georgia, other aspects of New York, and her move to D.C. “For me as a trans woman that story involves a very laborious journey to self-actualization. We live in a world that doesn’t allow space for trans people. So, it’s a lot,” she says.

Work as a project manager for Barbizon, a leading provider of entertainment lighting systems, brought Friday to the DMV, specifically Dupont (Trump’s election prompted a move from Alexandria to the gayborhood). She’s currently dating a chef: “He’s great at what he does and he’s thrilled to see the show,” she says. 

BLADE: Was it tough writing a deeply personal show like Trans Am? 

LISA STEPHEN FRIDAY: I wrote my story over five weekends. It was incredibly cathartic. There are fun memories with downtown queens, but also the time I went to the pharmacy and the pharmacist totally read me about getting hormones. That was jarring. It was definitely time for me to acknowledge the enormity of what it means to be trans in this country.

BLADE: Would you describe your professional experience as unique? 

FRIDAY: Before transitioning, I went through the world as your typical 25-year-old cishetero male. Oblivious. I was a theater actor in New York, chasing roles like Chris in “Miss Saigon” or Marius in “Les Miz.” These were my life goals. I look back and think how trite.

Coming out and transitioning meant I was no longer cast. The last time I went on an audition for musical theater was in 2003 for “Taboo” to play Boy George’s friend Marilyn. The part went to a soap star. Instead, I found the downtown queer rock and roll scene. That’s where I needed to be. 

It took me a while to find clarity about who I was. A lot of what I talk about in the show is about finding that East Village crowd who said “honey, you’re a woman.” Surrounding yourself with community is the way to reach that. 

BLADE: What’s your history with “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.” 

FRIDAY: In the late ‘90s I asked to audition to replace Hedwig. In New York, they knew me as Steve Friday, a good rock and roll singer. I remember thinking I can’t do this shit. No one knows that I sit around my house wearing women’s clothes. 

I cancelled those auditions because I was living in fear. For a while, I really regretted that. Then 20 some years later, I had an opportunity to do it at Keegan. But the pandemic stopped that. 

The truth is I no longer feel that I need or want to play Hedwig. There is trauma in that story attached to medical transition. I’m a trans woman who has gone through all confirmation surgeries. I feel really uncomfortable standing on stage singing about an angry inch. 

I know Hedwig’s creators wrote that show from a loving place but it was written in 1998 and it’s very dated. That said, it opened the door to a queer space in theater that didn’t exist before. 

Now with “Trans Am,” Keegan can do something different. A trans person telling a trans story, which is a step forward from “Hedwig.”

BLADE: With productions shutting down due to the Omicron surge, do you feel any trepidation about getting through the run?  

FRIDAY: That fear is always there. For me it would be really disappointing. My life has been in the theater – performing or production. I’m hyper aware of everything the Keegan and all theaters are risking financially. So, I’m excited and grateful, but kind of walking on eggshells.

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Theater

‘Flight,’ an astonishing tale told using diorama and figures

Afghan brothers embark on arduous journey to U.K.

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‘Flight’ at Studio Theatre. (Photo by Mihaila Bodlovic)

‘Flight’
Through March 6
Studio Theatre’s Stage 4
1501 14th St., N.W.
$42-$52
studiotheatre.org

I wish I could fly. It’s a little boy’s dream, and certainly one that would be helpful to young Kabir who along with his older brother Aryan is traversing thousands of miles escaping their battered homeland Afghanistan in search of a future in the U.K.

Their arduous journey is titled “Flight,” an astonishingly moving tale told using diorama, tiny modeled figures, and voiceover. With neither live actors nor a traditional set, the Vox Matus (an innovative Glasgow-based theater company) production isn’t Studio Theatre’s typical offering, yet it serves as a compelling reopening lure after a long closure.

Despite seeming an ideal fit for the times, “Flight” wasn’t crafted with pandemic in mind (it premiered at the Edinburgh International Festival in 2017). The hybrid theater/installation is a reassuringly distanced theater experience.

After ascending to Studio’s third floor atrium, you’re handed a boarding pass and in small groups beckoned up to Stage 4 where you’re led to individual viewing booths. Then, seated comfortably and wearing head phones, you focus on over 200 small, brilliantly made dioramas, successively lit as they slowly pass by on a revolving carousel.

“Kabul, Tehran, Istanbul, Rome, Paris, London.” The green-eyed orphaned brothers repeat their direct route to a better life with unyielding determination. And the more it’s said, the more possible it seems. But minors traveling alone without passports is a perilous journey fraught with risk and miseries.

We meet Aryan and Kabir (voiced by Farshid Rokey and Nalini Chetty, receptively) just as they reach the Turkish coast and set sail to the E.U. in a rubber raft. Here, we’re also introduced to the first of many faceless profiteers – ruthless but necessary to the journey – who gain from human desperation.

Soon the boys land in Greece and are forced into farm labor at meager wages. When the harvest ends, the brothers hop a truck to Athens. As they move onward, their longing to attend school in the West, London to be specific, grows more intense.

Throughout what becomes a two-year odyssey, they wear out multiple pairs of trainers, encounter harsh weather, exploitation, sexual violence, hunger, and the occasional random act of kindness. As kids, they take time for a game of soccer and a plunge in the sea at Nice. But inevitably, such moments are cut short by officials depicted as menacing, uniformed seagulls.

“Flight’s” heavy themes and remarkable images blend well. The tiny tableaus chronicling the boys’ flight fittingly range from extraordinarily realistic to fantastical, alternately portraying the vastness and claustrophobic aspects of their ordeal. The intricately made models’ expressive faces, sometimes tear-streaked or bordering on joy, draw us to the likeable, intelligent brothers.

While Vox Motus’ co-artistic directors Jamie Harrison and Candice Edmunds conceive, direct and design the company’s innovative productions, collaboration with other artists is key to their success.

“Flight” is ably adapted by Oliver Emanuel from Caroline Brothers’ 2012 novel “Hinterland.” Enhancing the work’s intimate storytelling are Simon Wilkinson’s lighting design and composer and sound design by Mark Melville.

Each year more than 300,000 displaced children journey on their own. Behind that hideous number are individual stories; “Flight” effectively relays the personal story of two young Afghans, making them something other than a statistic.

After 45 minutes, the story ends. Slowly, you recede from the brothers’ reality in which you’ve been deeply immersed. A silent, black clad usher gently taps you on the shoulder and leads you out of Stage 4. For past productions, the vast versatile space has credibly passed as a nightclub and a church basement, among other things. This time it’s a window into an alternate world where a duly stamped official document means everything, sometimes including the difference between life and death.

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Theater

‘Nine Night’ explores Jamaican custom of mourning

‘Equally moving and hilarious in many parts’

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Timothy Douglas (Photo courtesy of Round House Theatre)

‘Nine Night’
Through Jan. 30
(Begins streaming on demand Jan. 20)
Round House Theatre
4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda, Md.
$41-$56, and $32.50 (virtual)
roundhousetheatre.org

When Round House Theatre began making plans for the U.S. premiere of Natasha Gordon’s “Nine Night,” they asked out director Timothy Douglas to interview with the playwright about helming the production. “It’s like we were separated at birth,” says Douglas. “It felt right from the first moment we met on Zoom, and I when I learned Natasha wanted to work with me, I made it work.”

A big success in London, “Nine Night” is a dramedy centered on the death of a family matriarch followed by the prescribed Jamaican tradition of exuberant mourning. 

The end-of-life custom entails nine consecutive nights of serious partying to celebrate the life of the departed, but there’s also a spiritual component. On the ninth night, it’s believed that the spirit returns to its earthly dwelling. By celebrating and rearranging furniture, the revelers discombobulate the deceased so they don’t want to stay, ensuring the spirit crosses over.

“In traditional Jamaican culture, nine night is a serious thing,” explains Douglas. “And while I didn’t set out to direct a dramedy. I found it equally moving and hilarious in many parts.”

Gordon, the London-born playwright of Jamaican descent, possessed only a casual knowledge of nine night growing up. But when her grandmother died, her mother became overwhelmed with a devotion to cultural specificity, and the ritual was thrust on the family. 

“From the playwright’s perspective what happened was chaos,” adds Douglas. “And going through that inspired her to write the play.”  

The work’s central character draws from the Gordons’ life experience straddling two different cultures. And while it was the play itself that really grabbed Douglas, he relates to that aspect too. 

“It connected a lot of dots for me,” says Douglas, 60. “Elders in my family are from the Caribbean and share similar ways of celebrating life and in particular the deceased. There was an immediate familiarity on a feeling level for me. And with every bit of specific research, it’s unlocked things within in me rather than being introduced to me cold.”

Douglas caught the theater bug in grade school, and it grew from there. When he attended Marymount Manhattan College it was transitioning from all women to coeducational, and though he was studying technical theater and not acting, he landed all the male leads in the college’s plays. 

It was a part during his last year at Marymount (“Beckett’s ‘Endgame’ of all things,” adds Douglas with a chuckle) that seemingly solidified his desire to be an actor. He went on to train at Yale followed by five or six years of acting professionally. 

But then something changed. The director ardently explains, “I’m grateful to acting. It gave me focus, a way to communicate and navigate complicated life experiences. It saved my life.” But after therapy and spiritual growth coupled with an epiphany experienced while acting in a play in West Hollywood, he knew it wasn’t for him. He needed to direct. 

While “Nine Night” has no LGBTQ characters as identified in the play, Douglas’ upcoming project is a different story. 

In spring, Douglas makes his first foray into staging opera with Terrance Blanchard’s “Champion” at Boston Lyric Opera. It’s based on the life of queer boxer Emile Griffith, the talented welterweight who regained the world championship in 1962 when gay sex was still classified as a crime in developed countries. 

And to Douglas’ astonishment, internationally famous mezzo soprano Stephanie Blythe is cast to play a supporting role in “Champion.” He’s both excited and terrified: “I’m incredibly lucky that she’s a part of the production. But any hope of flying under the radar with my first opera is over.” 

At 18, Douglas made a beeline from Long Island to Manhattan. For many years he called New York home. Now he’s in Boston where he is the distinguished artist in residence at Emerson College. But over the years, he’s maintained a special relationship with the DMV. In addition to being sort of a staple at Round House, he’s directed to much acclaim at Arena Stage, Studio Theatre, and Theater Alliance to name a few. 

In fact, his professional directorial career kickstarted at D.C.’s Folger with “Richard III” in 1995. 

“I was a complete unknown to them. I had no track record yet. But the Folger was at a point where they could take risks. They needed to replace a director, and on the recommendation of a costume designer who’d heard of me, Michael Tolaydo who played the production’s titular role, agreed to take me on. That really changed things for me.”

“Being pretty much a gun for hire, every time D.C. asks me back, I always say yes.”

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