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Keegan’s ‘Boy’ is gut-wrenching coming-of-age tale

Sensitive direction, solid acting enliven quasi-trans-themed play

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Boy play review, gay news, Washington Blade
Lida Maria Benson and John Jones in ‘Boy.’ (Photo by Cameron Whitman; courtesy Keegan)

Boy’ 
Through March 7
The Keegan Theatre 
1742 Church St., N.W.
$41-51
202-265-3767

Anna Ziegler’s “Boy” is a searing story of sex and gender. Currently making its Washington-area premiere at Keegan Theatre, the prolific playwright’s 2015 work unblinkingly explores the pain and struggle that results when gender is imposed regardless of what the person feels he/she/they are. 

In Ziegler’s play, the boy in question is Adam Turner (John Jones).  

His tale is told swiftly in numerous scenes, some far more illuminating than others. We’re introduced to Adam on Halloween. He’s at a party, tellingly dressed as Frankenstein’s monster, where he meets, seemingly for the first time, a very tipsy Jenny (Lida Maria Benson). She’s dressed as a Playboy bunny, a costume she’s been reprising since 10th grade.

In fits and starts, a romantic relationship develops. But to Jenny’s dismay, Adam is hiding something. If he doesn’t open up, this boy-meets-girl love story will end before it begins. 

Originally Samuel, self-named Adam was the victim of a botched circumcision that destroyed his penis. Unsure what to do, his parents reach out to renowned specialist Dr. Wendell Barnes (Vishwas) who insists the only successful response to the situation is to raise Samuel as a girl and never reveal his true sex. 

Parents Trudy (Karen Novack) and Doug (Mike Kozemchak) follow the well-meaning doctor’s instructions slavishly, changing their son’s name to Samantha, supplying a wardrobe of dresses and filling his toy box with dolls. 

But despite the trusting Iowans best efforts, Trudy notes Samantha’s unhappiness. When Doug shows Samantha’s twin brother how to work on cars, the little girl looks on longingly from inside the house. At school, she is generally miserable, alienated from her classmates.

The only respite in Samantha’s life are her occasional visits to Dr. Barnes in Boston where she feels accepted and loved. But as the patient enters puberty, those visits are no longer cheerful. 

Alone with the doctor, Samantha refuses to discuss a proposed vaginoplasty and rebels against taking hormones. And despite being brought up as a girl, she feels like a boy, rather loudly disproving the doctor’s much-touted theory that nurture trumps nature every time. 

With the help of Jeremy Bennett’s projections, the play moves lucidly back and forth from Adam’s childhood to early adulthood, spanning the 1960s through 1990. For the protagonist, it’s a tortuous, confusing journey. 

What’s even more disturbing, the play is drawn from truth. “Boy” is loosely based on the life experience of a man named David Reimer, who suffered greatly before committing suicide at 38 in 2004. 

As Adam, Jones, a senior at Catholic University, makes an auspicious professional debut. On press night, they warmed up as the 90-minute play progressed, revealing an increasingly spontaneous handle on their complex character. Without costume or baby talk, the actor subtly employs posture and pitch to transform from petulant young girl to angry young man. 

And Benson is refreshingly natural as bubbly, generous Jenny, a young single mother. It’s a delightfully nuanced performance. 

Without revealing too much, Adam is put through the wringer. In pursuit of authenticity, he palpably demonstrates courage and love as he inevitably frustrates his loved ones, including the doctor, along the way.

Some of the story is unsatisfying. For instance, how the couple deals with their dearth of physical contact is blithely glossed over. Still it’s mostly compelling, and director Susan Marie Rhea has staged the production with sensitivity. 

At the center of Matthew J. Keenan’s minimal but metaphor-heavy set, is a large door frame behind which lies a black abyss. It’s through this door that Adam’s destiny lies. 

In conjunction with “Boy,” for one night only (Feb. 24), Keegan’s Boiler Room Series will produce a staged reading of “Alix in Wonderland: A gender Journey Down the Rabbit Hole” by Buzz Mauro and out playwright Norman Allen, followed by a guest panel discussion and audience talkback. 

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Theater

New Studio Theatre production explores misery of addiction

Slogging through the work of recovery in ‘People, Places & Things’

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Kristen Bush in ‘People, Places & Things.’ (Photo by Margot Schulman)

‘People, Places & Things’
Through Dec. 11
Studio Theatre
1501 14th St., N.W.
$65-$95
Studiotheatre.org

Meet Emma, working actor and addict.  

After a lot of hard partying and an onstage collapse, the relapsing heroine of Duncan Macmillan’s “People, Places & Things” devises a sort of strategy. She’ll do a short stint in rehab and get back to work as soon as possible, sort of breeze in and breeze out. But things don’t quite pan out as planned.  

In Macmillan’s superbly written and aptly named work (the title references a recovery slogan about triggers and relapse), the English playwright takes a lucid and, at turns, funny and mordantly perceptive look into the misery of addiction and the vicissitudes of recovery. At the center of his work is Emma — dishonest, witty, very toxic, but in spite of everything, likeable.  

At Studio Theatre, director David Muse succeeds in leading an inventive design team and strong cast, particularly Kristen Bush as wily Emma, in bringing this not unfamiliar but compellingly told tale to life. 

After a major professional screw up, (a wasted Emma implodes during a performance of Chekhov’s “The Seagull”), she voluntarily checks into a British clinic. At intake she’s still high and in an uncharacteristically honest moment, readily admits to having recently indulged in a panoply of pills, weed, coke, speed, and ibuprofen washed down with gin and a good bottle of Rioja.

Unsold on the 12 steps, she’s resistant. Still the show must go on – loads of therapy (one-on-one and group) and role-playing sessions ensue. The medical professionals, staff, and patients are played effectively by Nathan Whitmer, Lise Bruneau, Tessa Klein, Maboud Ebrahimzadeh, Emily Erickson, Derek Garza, Lynette R. Freeman, and the excellent David Manis. 

Jeanne Paulsen plays Emma’s helpful doctor and later and more startling, her mother. Jahi Kearse adds an inspiring presence as a fellow addict.

Watching an addict slog through the yeoman work of recovery, and in this case an unenthusiastic patient’s passage from detox to therapy to departure, isn’t anything new; but here, the unfolding journey feels fresh despite or maybe due to the protagonist’s dearth of pink cloud elation. There’s also a real true-to-lifeness about it. 

Studio’s new Victor Shargai Theatre has been configured as alley staging (it’s like a catwalk with banked seating on either side), making for an intimate experience. Debra Booth’s institutional grey set changes fairly seamlessly and entertainingly to different spaces, all interconnected in Emma’s recovery – a stage, an after-hours club evoking both allure and dread, offices, therapy rooms, and bedrooms. 

Lighting by Andrew Cissna and Lindsay Jones’s music contribute to a sometimes-unsettling mood. 

Macmillan wrote “People, Places & Things” with a meaty female role in mind. It premiered at London’s National Theatre in 2015 and moved to New York a couple of years later. The production proved a great success for everyone involved, including Denise Gough who created the role of Emma. Bush is garnering a similar reaction at Studio. 

As the action moves steadily toward an ending, contributing factors regarding Emma’s dysfunction are revealed – cold family, a brother’s death. Some definite headway is made. Still, there’s no denying that over turbulent years, she’s left some very hurt and disappointed colleagues and family in her frenzied drug fueled wake. 

The actor/addict leaves rehab markedly less messy. Reentering the world as a different Emma, she lands at the home of her unsympathetic parents, not the most cushiony place for a sober re-launch. 

Her future is unclear, and like her sobriety, can’t be taken for granted. 

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Theater

D.C. theaters offer something for every holiday taste

From ‘Hip Hop Nutcracker’ to plenty of Scrooge productions

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The Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington presents ‘The Holiday Show.’ (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

For many Washington area theatergoers, it wouldn’t be the holidays without seeing an old chestnut or two. At the same time, newer productions are rapidly becoming yuletide traditions in their own right, and with every unfolding holiday season, the DMV scene is additionally gifted with fresh and exciting works. 

It’s a lot. Here’s a sampling. 

National Theatre presents “A Magical Cirque Christmas” (Dec. 16-18), an evening of varied performers and spectacular double-jointed cirque artists accompanied by your favorite holiday music performed live. Mistress of Magic Lucy Darling hosts this exciting and enchanting holiday entertainment for the entire family (well, almost, children under four are strictly verboten). Broadwayatthenational.com

At Synetic Theater in Crystal City, it’s “Snow Maiden” (Dec. 1 – 23) based on a 19th century folk tale about a lonely man who creates a woman out of snow and created by Helen Hayes Award-winning choreographer and Synetic co-founder Irina Tsikurishvili. Synetictheater.org 

In Falls Church, Creative Cauldron is conjuring magic with “The Christmas Angel” (Dec. 2-18). Married collaborators Matt Conner and Stephen Gregory Smith’s musical is based on a little-known 1910 novel by Abbey Farwell Brown about a lonely woman who finds happiness through a box of old toys. Creativecauldron.org

The season now upon us offers myriad opportunities to experience Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” the redemptive tale of Ebenezer Scrooge, perhaps the most celebrated Christmas character after Santa, Rudolph, and the baby Jesus.

Historic Ford’s Theatre version of “A Christmas Carol” (through Dec. 31) has been a popular Washington tradition for more than 30 years. The beautifully produced and consistently well-acted take on the Dickens’ classic (originally conceived by Michael Baron), features Craig Wallace reprising Scrooge, who after a night of ghostly visits, rediscovers Christmas joy. fords.org 

At Olney Theatre, Paul Morello lovingly revisits his celebrated take on the “A Christmas Carol” (through Jan. 1). In his solo adaptation of Dickens’ ghost story (created and performed by Morello), he brings to life more than 40 different characters including Scrooge, the entire Cratchit family, the specters, and numerous celebrants.

Olney is also reviving its holiday musical success “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast” through Jan. 1, and reprising roles in the tale as old time terrific are out actor Jade Jones as Belle and Evan Ruggiero as the Beast. Out actor Bobby Smith plays Lumiere. Marcia Milgrom Dodge directs. Olneytheatre.org

In various books and interviews, movie star Bette Davis recounts how as a young girl, she most looked forward to finding theater tickets under the tree (a Davis family Christmas tradition). Perhaps you know a youth or adult, who’d like receive tickets this holiday season? The Kennedy Center Opera House is tempting audiences with a traveling production of the Broadway blockbuster “Wicked” (Dec. 8-Jan. 22), the much-loved prequel of the “Wizard of Oz.” Kennedy-center.org 

Signature Theatre adds to the holiday fun with “Into the Woods” (through Jan. 29), Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s unique musical spin on treasured fairytales and “happily-ever-after.” The large, uber-talented cast features — among other big names — Nova Y. Payton, out actor David Merino, and Maria Rizzo. Matthew Gardiner directs. Sig-theatre.org

Then there’s always “The Nutcracker.” Here are four from scores of local productions. 

The Washington Ballet presents its charming version at the gilded Warner Theatre through Dec. 30. With Tchaikovsky’s timeless music and splendid choreography by Septime Weber, this 1882 Georgetown-set production features historical figures including George Washington and King George III, along with the usual suspects like children, rats, fairies and a mysterious godfather. Washingtonballet.org

Bethesda’s Music Center at Strathmore presents “The Hip Hop Nutcracker” (Dec. 19-22), Tchaikovsky’s classic re-imagined with MC Kurtis Blow (“White Lines”). Strathmore.org  

And Kansas City Ballet’s celebrated seasonal tradition, “The Nutcracker,” is at the Kennedy Center through Nov. 27, so you’ll need to move fast. 

The beloved Puppet Co. located within Glen Echo Park presents its 34th annual “The Nutcracker” through Jan. 1. The delightful puppet show includes Tchaikovsky’s familiar music and the story of Clara and her prince, with some Puppet Co. nursery rhyme spin. (Recommended for ages 4+. Run time approximately 50 minutes.)

Running nearly concurrently at the Puppet Co. is “Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins” (Dec. 1-30). “Hershel just wants to celebrate Hanukkah with the community, but the Queen and King of the Goblins have forbidden the lighting of the candles. Can Hershel save the day and lift the curse for this shtetl (village)?” (Recommended ages 5+. Run time approximately 60 minutes.) Thepuppetco.org 

And for those who might find themselves all Nutcracker-ed out, Ballet Hispánico returns to the Kennedy Center with internationally renowned choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s “Doña Perón” (Nov. 30-Dec. 3), a truly exciting portrait of Eva “Evita” Perón. Kennedy-center.org 

And for something festive, edifying, and relaxed, try the National Symphony Orchestra’s “Ugly Sweater Holiday Concert” at The Anthem on Dec. 6. Go ahead, why not don something hideous and enjoy your favorite holiday songs? 

Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington is back with “The Holiday Show” (Dec. 3-11), an annual extravaganza that promises sparkly snow, tap dancers, and over-the-top costumes at their usual venue, the historic Lincoln Theatre in the U Street Corridor. Slated for the program are songs like “Sleigh Ride,” “Underneath the Tree,” “The 12 Rockin’ Days of Christmas,” “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” and “Hard Candy Christmas” performed by the full Chorus, soloists, all GMCW ensembles, and the GenOUT Youth Chorus. Gmcw.org 

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Theater

Poignant ‘Sanctuary City’ depicts two immigrants struggling to get ahead in America

Undocumented friends navigate post-9/11 New Jersey

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Hernán Angulo and María Victoria Martínez in Sanctuary City at Arena Stage.  (Photo by Margot Schulman)

‘Sanctuary City’
Through Nov. 27
Arena Stage
1101 Sixth St., S.W. 
$41-$95
Arenastage.org

As a kid growing up in San Juan, Puerto Rico, María Victoria Martínez was obsessed with musicals, Broadway shows like “West Side Story” and Disney movies were on nonstop rotation. She knew the scores by heart and longed to play not the ingenues or princesses, but rather character roles like “The Little Mermaid’s” villainous Ursula and Miss Hannigan, the comically bitter lush in “Annie.”

“Imitating the singers is how I learned English,” says Martínez, 30. It also ignited a passion for theater that ultimately lured her into show biz (though she doesn’t do musicals).

 After earning a bachelor’s degree from the University of Puerto Rico followed by a master’s degree from A.R.T. (American Repertory Theater Institute for Advanced Theater Training at Harvard University), she kicked off a career as a multifaceted actor. Martínez follows the work, but splits most her time between San Juan and New York City: “It’s my idea of a bicoastal existence,” she says. 

Currently Martínez, who identifies as queer, is at Arena Stage starring in Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Martyna Majok’s “Sanctuary City,” an Arena/Berkeley Repertory Theatre co-production directed by David Mendizábal with associate direction and transfer direction by Cara Hinh.

Set in Newark, N.J., not long after 9/11, a time when anti-immigrant sentiment was on the rise, the new work is a timely and poignant piece. Martínez and out actor Hernán Angulo play longtime undocumented friends (simply called G and B, respectively), struggling to get ahead in America, the only home they’ve ever known. 

Without giving too much away, adds Martínez, G’s position in the U.S. is more stable than B’s. Still, she’s willing to fight to help secure his fate. He is arguably her only friend. 

WASHINGTON BLADE: Would you describe your character, G, as the fierier of the two? 

MARĺA VICTORIA MARTĺNEZ: Yes. As I read the play, I definitely saw this ardent fire in G. When she feels safe the fire burns but she feels in danger, her fire is combustible and liable to burn everything down. G is the engine that tries to keep B going, to uplift him, to find ways for him to stay in the country. 

They share moments when they seem like brother and sister, sometimes friends, and even lovers. It’s left open for audience to interpret as they watch the play. It’s messy. And that’s what makes it good.

BLADE: Was it tough moving the production across country?

MARTĺNEZ: Transferring theaters was tricky – they’re very different spaces. In Berkeley we were in a black box almost in full round. Arena’s Kreeger Theater is proscenium, so we’ve had to flatten out our blocking. But in doing so we found new moments in the show. 

Audiences are different in every city. In California, there were certain moments in the show where audiences were really cracking up and here, we don’t hear a peep. But after all, theater is a living organism and moving gives new and different life.

BLADE: In “Sanctuary City,” you and Hernán Angulo play such incredibly close friends. How is that relationship offstage? 

MARTĺNEZ: We were so fortunate to have been cast together. We got along right off the bat and now we’re very close. I identify as queer and he identifies as a gay man. But it’s really our Latinidad (Latinness) that brought us together. And we both love to laugh a lot. When apart we Facetime and share Tik Toks and serious articles too. 

I’m Puerto Rican and he’s Mexican American from the Bay Area. I’m interested in Mexican culture. Spanish is my first language; and Hernán speaks Spanish, so there’s that too. 

BLADE: Have you witnessed the courage and pain of undocumented people firsthand?

MARTĺNEZ: In Puerto Rico most of the immigrants are Dominicans. We’re generally welcoming to them. But I have seen some bad things, and when I witness that aggression, it doesn’t make sense to me. I can’t understand blocking someone from seeking refuge. 

BLADE: Anything directed at you personally?

MARTĺNEZ: Yes, I experienced some unsettling xenophobia when Trump was first elected. I was still at A.R.T. and traveling home to San Juan. At the airport, I was speaking Spanish and a lady purposely bumped into me and told me to go back to my country. I hold a U.S. passport, so you can only imagine what happens to people who are more vulnerable. 

These things are really important to talk about. And I’m happy and proud to be doing the show in D.C. I think it gives it even more meaning. 

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