January 2, 2020 at 10:11 am EST | by Patrick Folliard
YEAR IN REVEW 2019: Farewell Michael Kahn
2019 theater, gay news, Washington Blade
Max von Essen (left) and Nick Adams in ‘Falsettos.’ (Photo by Joan Marcus, courtesy Kennedy Center) and Vaughn Ryna Midder as The Black Rat in ‘Native Son.’ (Photo by Iwan Bagus; courtesy Mosaic Theater Co.)

Undoubtedly, the year’s big D.C. theater story was legendary director Michael Kahn’s departure. After helming the Shakespeare Theatre Company since 1986, the out artistic director packed up and headed back to his native New York City. It was an amicable parting, one that Kahn had contemplated for a couple seasons. And though he’s missed in Washington, we’re comforted by the memories and thriving company he created.

Last spring, Kahn ended his tenure on a high note with his brilliant staging of “The Oresteia,” Aeschylus’s tragedy adapted especially for STC by playwright and actor Ellen McLaughlin (the original Angel in “Angels in America”). While Kahn might have closed with something less complicated, he didn’t. In fact, when a patron with deep pockets offered to bankroll any last project of his choosing, Kahn instantly selected the Greek trilogy. According to him, it was the ultimate challenge and Kahn likes a challenge.

Another prominent story in 2019 was the nonbinary actor. Of course, they aren’t new to the scene, but nonbinary actors have become increasingly visible. Last year’s standouts included rising-star Latinx trans/nonbinary Avi Roque who deftly played multiple roles in Shakespeare Theatre Company’s season-opener “Everybody,” out playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ contemporary, fun, gender-inclusive take on the medieval morality play. 

At Round House Theatre, gifted nonbinary comic actor Moriamo Temidayo Akibu memorably played an awkward school girl in Jocelyn Bioh’s impactful teen comedy, “School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play.” 

In spring, D.C.’s company dedicated to the LGBT experience, Rainbow Theatre Project, mounted a haunting take on the seldom produced “Clothes for a Summer Hotel,” Tennessee Williams haunting work about the last days of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda Fitzgerald. 

And more recently, Rainbow presented an engaging new work, “Blue Camp,” by out writing team Tim Caggiano and Jack Calvin Hanna. The story of gay soldiers awaiting discharge at the beginning of the Vietnam War, it gives a glimpse into a neglected piece of queer history. Moses Bossenbroek gave a winning performance as a southern soldier who wants it all — drag and serve honorably.

Perhaps it’s the current political climate, I’m not sure, but there’s been a little surge in productions of “Richard III,” Shakespeare’s tale of a loathed, evil leader. Last winter at Shakespeare Theatre Company, director David Muse gave a deliciously gory take on the classic, starring talented Matthew Rauch as the twisted monarch. And in spring, Synetic Theater’s terrific cyberpunk version titled “Richard iii” starred out actor Alex Mills as the title villain. Helen Hayes Award-winning actor Philip Fletcher played Richard’s older brother King Edward.

Especially memorable works from 2019 include Mosaic Theatre Company’s production of Nambi E. Kelley’s same-titled take on Richard Wright’s seminal novel, “Native Son.” It’s the story of Bigger Thomas, a young black man who, in search of opportunity in Depression-era Chicago, goes to work for a wealthy white family where he unintentionally sets off a chain of tragic events.

Out actor Vaughan Ryan Midder strikingly played the the Black Rat, an omniscient character who serves both as a gnawing reflection of how the hostile world sees central character Bigger as a 20-year-old black man and a survival guide.

At the Kennedy Center, golden-throated Max von Essen was terrific as Marvin, the gay dad in “Falsettos,” William Finn and James Lapine’s musical about a complicated New York City family, and the devastation of AIDS. Out actor Nick Adams played Marvin’s cute, younger partner Whizzer Brown.

Eleasha Gamble impressed audiences as the title queen in Olney Theatre’s “Mary Stuart” based on Friedrich Schiller’s widely read 1800 take on the ill-fated royal. Adapted and staged by Olney’s out artistic director Jason Loewith, the work is an exploration of the chilling rivalry between England’s Elizabeth I and her Scottish cousin. Prior to this production, I had mistakenly thought of Gamble as chiefly a singer. No longer.

And at Studio Theatre, there was Jeff Hiller’s hilarious one-man tour de force “Bright Colors and Bold Patterns.” Set against an agonizingly tasteful Palm Springs same-sex wedding, it’s the story of a boozy, embittered gay guy sliding ungracefully into middle age.

Things I wish I’d seen in 2019 but didn’t, include 1st Stage’s production Carson McCullers’ “The Member of the Wedding” directed by Cara Gabriel. A heartrending coming-of-age story set in a small southern town, the play — adapted from the bisexual writer’s same-titled novella — is an expression of McCullers’ enduring longing to connect.

Also, sorry I missed the legendary Betty Buckley in the national tour of out composer Jerry Herman’s chestnut “Hello, Dolly!” at the Kennedy Center. This was the same revival production that famously featured Bette Midler on Broadway. Reportedly, Buckley gave a gorgeous, heartfelt performance.

Out actor/directors were busy in 2019.

Holly Twyford played an emancipated Nora in Round House Theatre’s production of Lucas Hnath’s “A Doll’s House, Part 2” (a sequel to Ibsen’s 1879 proto-feminist classic). It was a well-made and finely acted production of a play that I anticipated liking more. More recently, Twyford directed the brilliant Caryl Churchill’s “Escaped Alone” at Signature Theatre. 

Rick Hammerly skillfully staged Factory 449’s production of “Agnes of God,” John Pielmeier’s 1979 play about a young nun who mysteriously becomes pregnant. It featured a cast of three — Felicia Curry, Nanna Ingvarsson, and Zoe Walpole — who convincingly portrayed a trio of damaged women.

Hammerly then donned his actor’s hat and a fatty suit to reprise the role of loveable Mr. Fezziwig in Ford’s Theatre’s delightfully durable production of Michael Baron’s “A Christmas Carol.” What a lovely way to see out the year. 

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