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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

‘Hadestown’ comes to the Kennedy Center

Levi Kreis discusses return to live theater

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Levi Kreis is an out actor who plays Hermes in the national tour of ‘Hadestown’ soon opening at the Kennedy Center. (Photo courtesy of Levi Kreis)

Hadestown
Through Oct. 31
The Kennedy Center
$45.00 – $175.00
Kennedy-center.org
For Covid-19 safety regulations go to Kennedy-center.org/visit/covid-safety/

Early in September at New York’s Walter Kerr Theatre, out singer/actor Levi Kreis was in the audience for the long-awaited Broadway reopening of “Hadestown,” Anaïs Mitchell’s rousing musical reimagining of the Orpheus myth in which the legendary Greek hero descends into the underworld to rescue his lover Eurydice. 

After almost 18 months of pandemic-induced closure, the Tony Award-winning folk opera was back and the house was full. In a recent phone interview, Kreis describes the evening as “love-filled, and electrifying and emotional after such a difficult time.” Now, Kreis is onstage in the national tour of “Hadestown,” currently launching at the Kennedy Center. As Hermes, the shape-shifting god of oratory, Kreis is both narrator and chaperone to the story’s young lovers. 

A Tennessee native, Kreis, 39, has triumphantly survived turbulent times including a harrowingly prolonged coming out experience that included six years of conversion therapy, education disruptions, and music contract losses. He officially came out through his acclaimed album “One of the Ones” (2006), which features a collection of piano vocals about past boyfriends. And four years later, he splendidly won a Tony Award for originating the role of rock and roll wild man Jerry Lee Lewis in the rockabilly musical “Million Dollar Quartet.” 

Throughout much of the pandemic, Kreis leaned into his own music and found ways to reconnect with his largely gay fan base. But he’s happy to now be touring, noting that all the “Hadestown” cast have been hungering to perform before a real live audience.

When not on the road, he’s based in New York City with his husband, classical-crossover recording artist Jason Antone. 

WASHINGTON BLADE: Hermes is the same role for which André De Shields—the brilliant African American actor, also gay, and some decades your elder won a Tony and has resumed playing on Broadway, right?

LEVI KREIS: That’s right. It’s really a testament to the creative team. Rather than laying us over what Broadway created. They’re creating a tour that’s uniquely different; still true to the beauty of the story but with a different flavor. 

BLADE: What attracted you to the part?

KREIS: First, I fell in love with the show. My own musical sensibilities understand the origins of where this music comes from. It’s very bluesy and gospel. Southern and rootsy. And that’s everything I’ve created in my career as a singer/songwriter.

BLADE: With your life experience, do you feel called to mentor?

KREIS: The biggest effort I’ve given to this narrative is being a pioneer of the out-music movement starting in 2005 which was a moment when gay artists were not signed to major labels. I want through eight major labels—when they found out I was gay things always went south. 

It’s been amazing to be a voice in LGBTQ media when no one was speaking about these things. It’s popular now, but back when it mattered it was a lot harder to start my career as an openly gay artist and speak about these issues rather than keep quiet, cash in, and only then come out. 

BLADE: Where did that nerve come from?

KREIS: Less about nerve and more about being beaten down. How many things have to happen before you give up and decide to be honest?  

BLADE: For many theatergoers, “Hadestown” will be their return to live theater. Other than it being visionary and remarkably entertaining, why would you recommend it? 

KREIS: We need encouragement right now. But we also need art that facilitates a lot of important conversation about what’s happening in the world. This has both elements.  

“Hadestown” is not a piece of art that you easily forget. You’re going to walk out of the theater with a story that sticks with you. You’ll realized that your own voice matters. There’s a part in the show, Orpheus’ song, when the gods encourage him to get the balance of the world back again by telling him that his voice matters. 

BLADE: Is it timely?

KREIS: Art is here to change the world. And this piece of art hits the nail right on the head. I’m a purist when it comes to art and song. There’s a reason why we do it. people are listening now in a way they haven’t listened before. To miss that is to miss the role of society, I think. 

BLADE: And going forward? 

KREIS: It’s going to be interesting. We could double down on super commercialized theater or we may decide to really go the other direction and reclaim innovation. That remains to be seen. 

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Theater

‘Broken Fantasies’ showcases LGBTQ actors of color

SMYAL-backed production at Atlas Performing Arts Center on Oct. 16

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'Broken Fantasies' cast (Photo courtesy of Breaking Ground)

Broken Fantasies
Oct. 16
Atlas Performing Arts Center
1333 H Street, NE
$5-$10
Atlasarts.com

In “Broken Fantasies” (a new offering from Breaking Ground), young LGBTQAI+ actors of color perform scenes taken from their actual lives. Issues addressed include racism, homelessness, sexual abuse, substance abuse and coming out.

Due to the pandemic, last year Breaking Ground’s annual offering was streamed online, but now a new SMYAL-backed production will be performed live for one night only on Oct. 16 at Atlas Performing Arts Center.

Breaking Ground’s out artistic director AJ King, says “Broken Fantasies” uses familiar fairytales (“Three Little Pigs,” “Cinderella,” etc.) to tell powerful, not always easy, stories. In seven to eight vignettes, the tales unfold on a minimal stage, and in addition to dialogue, the seventeen-person cast employs music, poetry and dance to express their experiences.

Founded by King in 2014 in response to the need for expression in the arts as a vehicle for social change, Breaking Ground utilizes theater and performing arts to detail the lives, challenges and journeys of LGBTQAI+ of color in the DMV.

In 2016, SMYAL became the program’s fiscal partner, and the same year, Breaking Ground received an award from the Obama White House for Champions of Change, solidifying their game in the arts community.

King, 32, was drawn to theater during middle and high school in Herndon, Va., and later became involved in programs combining social justice and the arts. He wasn’t a trained director when he founded Breaking Ground but after seven years, King says, he’s found his footing “Still, it remains challenging. Each year there’s a different cast with varied energy, stories and personalities.”

King explains, the cast writes scripts from interviews with other cast members. Sometimes the stories end happily, sometimes not. But without saccharine resolutions, the scenes offer options for audience members who might identify with the problems presented onstage.

“It’s a lot. Cast members have to trust co-actors with their stories and then allow their stories to go onstage,” he adds.

Cast member Eli Barton, 24, says, “The process of sharing your story is surreal at first. It takes courage. But you learn to look at yourself and be gentle about your situation. And when the audience relates to the experience, you understand that your story can really help others.”

Last year, Barton, who is bisexual, played a trans man. But in “Broken Fantasies,” she plays a straight supportive sister who strives to help her gay brother find his voice after the death of their mother. The vignette also involves women empowerment, a history of sexual abuse, and finding a way to navigate growing up a Christian household.

“Acting with other openly LGBTQIA+ is a blessing,” adds Barton. “It’s given me more exposure to the umbrella of the rainbow and allowed me to meet amazing artists. I feel safe and unguarded with them.”

King encourages all stripes of people to attend: “As an audience member, during the performance you put a mirror up to yourself. There may be something relatable, tangible or abstract, or an opportunity for learning and healing. Following a show, it’s not unusual for audience members to say, ‘That’s exactly what I went through and it was the first time I ever saw it portrayed on stage.’”

“And you don’t have to be LGBTQIA+ to relate,” he adds. “The issues covered transcend race, sexuality, gender expression—we deal with things that can be found in every family.”

Theater patrons are required to wear masks and present proof of vaccination.

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Theater

‘Doña Rosita’ marks reunion of three Spaniards at GALA

An excellent cast and dynamic staging elevate stellar production

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Ariel Texidó and Mabel del Pozo in Doña Rosita la soltera. (Photo by Daniel Martínez)

Doña Rosita la soltera
Through Oct. 3
GALA Hispanic Theatre
3333 14th Street, NW
$35-$48
galatheatre.org

In the 1930s, Federico García Lorca, 20th century Spain’s greatest poet and dramatist, was writing plays about a woman’s place in the world. In fact, Lorca, who was gay, was exploring women’s souls in an unprecedented way for Spain, or anywhere really. His insight is frequently credited, in part, to his sexuality.  

Now at GALA Hispanic Theatre, Lorca’s “Doña Rosita la soltera (Doña Rosita the Spinster)” tells the story of Rosita, an unmarried woman who subsists on definite hopes of marrying a long-distance fiancé. Whether it’s to keep the populace at bay or to feed a romantic fantasy, isn’t completely clear, but years — decades, in fact — pass, and very little changes. 

Set in the conservative world of middle-class Granada (Lorca’s native province), the 100-minute play, performed in Spanish with English surtitles, spans the 1880s through the early 1900s, constrictive years for women in Spain. When Lorca wrote “Doña Rosita” in 1935, on the eve of the Spanish Civil War, he appreciated the recent gains made surrounding women’s rights and foresaw further, imminent progress. Then, just a year later at age 38 and at the top of his game, Lorca was unlawfully arrested and murdered by Franco’s rightwing thugs. All was lost. 

Adapted by out writer Nando López, GALA’s offering strays from Lorca’s original in various ways: there are fewer characters, and the older Rosita serves more as a narrator, interacting with her younger self. Lorca’s glorious poetry remains mostly intact. 

Still, the title character’s tale is clear: Orphaned as a child, Rosita (Mabel del Pozo) goes to live with her devoted aunt (Luz Nicolás) and uncle (Ariel Texidó), an avid gardener. As a young woman, she falls in love with her first cousin (also played by Texidó), and they’re engaged. Despite the fiancé leaving Spain to join his aging parents on their sizeable farm in Tucumán, Argentina, the young lovers remain betrothed. 

Domestic life goes on. With the support of relations, and the family’s devoted but skeptical housekeeper (Laura Alemán), Rosita assembles a first-rate trousseau, and the affianced pair continue to exchange heartfelt letters. At one point, there’s talk of marriage by proxy – an idea scoffed at by some of the household and neighbors. 

The sameness of the unchanging household is offset by out director José Luis Arellano’s dynamic staging, an excellent cast, actors nimbly changing characters onstage with the help of a hat or cravat fished out of a chest of drawers, Jesús Díaz Cortés’ vibrant lighting, and incidental music from David Peralto and Alberto Granados. Alemán, so good as the shrewd housekeeper from the country (a place Lorca respected) also assays a spinster who comes to tea. And Catherine Nunez characterizes feminine youth, scornful of Rosita’s unattached status. Delbis Cardona is versatile as the worker and Don Martin, a teacher charged with educating the ungrateful offspring of Granada’s rich. 

After a rare outdoor excursion to the circus, Rosita wrongly claims to have seen her would-be groom working with the troupe, but the housekeeper is quick to point out that the well-built puppeteer is by no means her stoop-shouldered barefoot fiancé, adding that more and more Rosita is seeing her faraway love in the face of the men about Granada. Swiftly, the aunt reminds the housekeeper to know her place – she’s allowed to speak, but not bark.

Visually, the passage of time is indicated by the hemline and cut of Rosita’s dresses (designed by Silvia de Marta), and the mid-play dismantling of the set (also de Marta), opening the family’s rooms and garden to what lies beyond. 

After intermission, six more years have passed and the narrative is more straightforward and patently compelling. Rosita’s aunt, now a pissed-off, generally miserable widow in reduced circumstances, is packing up to move. It’s been hard running a house, she says. And it’s harder scrubbing the floors, replies the faithful housekeeper. 

And it’s here that del Pozo shines with Rosita’s revelatory monologue, a searingly true, passionately delivered speech worth the price of a ticket. 

“Doña Rosita” marks a collaborative reunion of three Spaniards – writer López, director Arellano, and actor del Pozo – who all worked on GALA’s 2015, multi-Helen Hayes Award-winning production of Lorca’s politically controversial “Yerma,” the story of another complicated Spanish woman. 

GALA Hispanic Theatre safety policy

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