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Out Latinx actress savors role in ‘Grapes of Wrath’ sequel at Arena

Natalie Camunas does double duty in East Coast premiere of ‘Mother Road’

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Natalie Camunas, gay news, Washington Blade
Natalie Camunas has enjoyed having creative input beyond her roles in the various new plays she’s helped launch. (Photo courtesy Arena)

‘Mother Road’

Through March 8

Arena Stage 

1101 Sixth St., S.W.

$41-95

202-488-3300

arenastage.org 

When Natalie Camunas was asked to play Amelia, a young migrant worker in Octavio Solis’ “Mother Road,” a contemporary sequel to John Steinbeck’s Dust Bowl saga “The Grapes of Wrath,” she was excited to learn more about what she deems a very American experience.

Now making its East Coast premiere at Arena Stage with a production conceived by The Oregon Shakespeare Festival, “Mother Road” is about terminally ill William Joad’s search for a relative to whom he can leave his prosperous Oklahoma farm. Much to Joad’s surprise, his only living heir is Mexican-American, sometime-migrant worker Martín Jodes. What follows is a tumultuous road trip filled with scrapes and discussion surrounding race, immigration, social justice, sexuality and family. Camunas plays Martín’s jilted bride.

“I get cast in these stories and I think it’s assumed because of how I look that there’s a narrative on my skin, that I’m closer to the migrants’ story than other actors,” says Camunas, 32. “But for me, there’s no personal connection. What I know about migrants, I’ve learned through art.”

In 2018, Camunas understudied four of 12 parts in Luis Valdez’s “Valley of the Heart,” a Romeo and Juliet story of Japanese and Mexican farmworkers during the time of WWII Japanese internment. And now “Mother Road” with its storyline and details, has added to her knowledge. She says, “America was built on the backs of immigrant populations and there’s never really enough representation in the theater. More would be better.”

Camunas, an enthusiastically self-described queer second-generation Latinx actor, is particularly pleased that Arena, whose mission focuses on producing American works, markedly includes “Mother Road” in that canon.

“Latin immigrants and migrant workers have always been here,” she says. “So anytime we can dive into stories and put that experience in context on the main stage, or any experience that we have yet to see on stage for that matter, it’s compelling and necessary.”

Every show has its miracles, and “Mother Road” is no exception. One of the production’s magic moments has been getting its chorus right, says Camunas, who plays Chorus Leader in addition to Amelia.

“We had very little to do to restage the show in Arena’s in-the-round Fichandler space, and five of the members were new additions to the cast.”

Fortunately, adds Camunas, the production was helmed by out director, Bill Rauch. 

“He’s a solution-based director. That alleviates worry. If the captain of the ship isn’t panicking that trickles down to the cast in a very good way. Also, Rauch is collaborative — entirely egoless about the story and the narrative. That’s so important to me.”

Because Camunas is primarily cast in new works, she’s been afforded opportunities for collaboration. Typically, rehearsals begin with the playwright in the room making changes, prompting the shape of the work to shift as actors discover their characters.

“It’s very gratifying to have a director or playwright who affirms your input about dialogue, blocking and costume editing,” she says. “When everyone is on the same page like that, the work really pops.”

Her entry into showbiz was tentative. After graduating from University of Southern California with a B.A. in communications in 2009, Camunas was unsure what to do next. On impulse, she took a marketing internship at The Unusual Suspects Theatre Company in Los Angeles. There she learned how a theater company actually worked and that artists could successfully forge careers in the arts.

Encouraged by her mentor, busy actor Matt Orduna, she reluctantly began studying acting. Turns out, she loved it, and after two years of training, she began working professionally and has worked consistently ever since — mostly regional theater, some TV and film, and a lot of voiceover work (where being bilingual in English and Spanish has been advantageous).

After “Mother Road,” Camunas plans to return to her home in Los Angeles and be with her girlfriend, a creative director in marketing, and their dog, a female Shiba Inu named Chuck. After going hard at regional theater for several years, she’d like to focus on TV and film. She says, “It’s time to stay put for a while.”

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New musical highlights Frederick Douglass but falls short

‘American Prophet’ needs more energy and spark

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Cornelius Smith Jr. (Frederick Douglass) and the cast of ‘American Prophet.’ (Photo by Margot Schulman)

‘American Prophet’
Through Aug. 28
Arena Stage
1101 Sixth St., S.W.
$66 – $115
Arenastage.org

Frederick Douglass’s brilliance didn’t blossom in a walled garden. 

Born into slavery around 1819, the renowned abolitionist worked the fields of Maryland’s Eastern Shore, and docks of Baltimore before escaping to freedom in New York where he emerged as a famed orator, writer, and publisher. Along his exceptional journey, Douglass was supported by family, and like-minded folks including prominent progressives of different temperaments whom he both learned from and heavily influenced. 

In “American Prophet,” a biographical musical now premiering at Arena Stage, co-creators Marcus Hummon and Charles Randolph-Wright have intentionally relied heavily on Douglass’s written words with mixed results. In both dialogue and lyrics, the great orator’s fearless opines are present, sometimes they spark and crackle, soar and inspire, and other times they’re not enough. 

The action takes place on a tiered set resembling the choir space in an unadorned church. It’s here the players congregate to tell Douglass’s remarkable story that doubles as a compelling slice of mid-19th century American history. 

Standing centerstage is Douglass with a serious but handsome countenance, that distinctive side part, dark coat and vest. The actor (Curtis Wiley stepping in for Cornelius Smith, Jr., on a recent Sunday evening) is every inch the activist whose photograph is copiously featured in history books.

(Having slipped into Arena’s Kreeger Theatre just as the lights went down, I didn’t realize until intermission when a strip of paper announcing the substitution fell out of my program, that I was watching an understudy. Wiley didn’t miss a line or lyric. His voice is gorgeous.)

Staged by Randolph-Wright, the musical unfolds chronologically as a straightforwardly told story. Douglass is born Frederick Bailey, purportedly the son of a slave and her white owner. After his mother’s death, he’s nurtured by a loving maternal grandmother (Cicily Daniels) and taught to read by his owner’s sympathetic wife who recognizes the boy’s quick mind and ability. Soon after he’s sent off to Baltimore to serve as companion to a family relation about his same age. When that doesn’t work, he’s sent back to the farm where an overseer unsuccessfully tries to break young Bailey’s spirit.

Back in Baltimore, still a slave, he works long hours as a stevedore with his pay going to his owners. Exuberant and inexhaustible, he finds time to take in some pleasures of the city. At a dance he meets his wife, a free black woman named Anna Murray (Kristolyn Lloyd). Together, they successfully flee to the free North. Once there – after changing his name to Douglass from a narrative poem by Sir Walter Scott, “The Lady of the Lake,” – his career booms. 

Grammy-winning composer Hummon’s score, a mix of gospel and country sounds, moves the story lucidly along while leaving room for some strong stand-alone melodies, particularly Kristolyn Lloyd’s pleasing rendition of Anna’s “I Love a Man.” In the supporting role of supporting wife, Lloyd is a standout. 

Going forward, Douglass finds friendship and opportunity with William Lloyd Garrison (Thomas Adrian Simpson) an abolitionist who demands absolute fealty from his colleague. He forms a true comradeship with fiery abolitionist John Brown (Chris Roberts), but when their tactics become too dissimilar, the pair part company. 

The second act finds us on the precipice of the Civil War, and it’s here we meet Abraham Lincoln (Simpson again). It’s not the usual hagiographic portrayal we’re used to seeing, far from it. The great savior of the Union is written as a real politician – gladhanding and strategic. Still, Lincoln evolves and benefits from his association with Douglass, even borrowing his thoughts from time to time.

Douglass was a force. Insanely ahead of his time, he called slaveowners to the carpet and expressed the hypocrisy of America at home and on tours abroad. And while the musical does lovingly put his humanness on display, I wanted more. When that jolt of energy and spirit finally comes with the show’s stirring final number “American Prophet,” it’s too little too late. 

Douglass spent his final years in Washington. He died at his home Cedar Hill in Anacostia. He was 77.

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Theater

‘Six’ an empowering musical remix of English history

Wives of Henry VIII tell their own stories

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Olivia Donalson as Anna of Cleves (center). (Photo by Joan Marcus)

‘Six’
Through Sept. 4
National Theatre
1321 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W.
$65-$150
BroadwayAtTheNational.com

Typically, the wives of Henry VIII are cast aside as headless footnotes. But in “Six,” an empowering and fun musical remix of English history (now playing at National Theatre), they tell their own stories.

Conceived by Brits Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss, the Broadway hit is a fast-paced 85-minute pop rock musical presented as a contest in which Henry’s wives compete for diva status by proving who’s been treated the worst by the monarch, and considering Henry’s vile track record, the competition is unsurprisingly stiff. 

History and music unfold chronologically as the royal consorts, backed by “The Ladies in Waiting,” (four musicians led by Jo Ann Daugherty), briefly but trenchantly share their experiences in a madly entertaining way.

After collectively introducing themselves and their respective fates with “Ex-Wives” (“Divorced, beheaded, died! Divorced, beheaded, survived!”), Henry’s first queen, Catherine of Aragon (Khaila Wilcoxon), a devout Catholic and a true Spanish princess who despite many tries was unable to provide her philandering husband with a surviving male heir, steps out of the line and states her case with a power-pop song titled “No Way.” 

Then one-by-one the remaining five — fabulously costumed in glittery short-skirted concert gear with Tudor flourishes by Gabriella Slade — get their turn in the spotlight. Storm Lever, as Anne Boleyn, Henry’s beguiling six-fingered second bride, wittily reminds the other women that she suffered far more than simply divorce and humiliation in “Don’t Lose Ur Head.” 

The evening’s liveliest number “Get Down,” replete with a saucy costume reveal, belongs to Anna of Cleves played Olivia Donalson. Thrown over by Henry because her looks didn’t live up to a Holbein portrait sent in advance (a still all-too-common problem), the German princess managed to keep her head and her money, proving you can be Henry’s ex and still have a good time. Her situation was unpleasant, yes, but certainly not the worst.  

In a clever move, the composers have sought “queenspiration” from contemporary artists. For instance, Jane Seymour (Jasmine Forsberg), best remembered as “the only one he ever loved” is drawn from Adele and Sia. Forsberg conveys the story’s sadness with the sorrowful ballad “Heart of Stone.”  

Henry’s victimized teenage wife Katherine Howard (Didi Romero) who was beheaded on Tower Green is drawn from Ariana Grande and Britney Spears; for Catherine Parr (Gabriela Carrillo), an independent thinker and the wife who survived Henry, inspiration comes from Alicia Keyes and Emili Sandé.  

Sounds like big stilettos to fill? Don’t worry, the cast is more than up for it — its six talented young women possess pipes, timing, and presence to spare.

Staged by Lucy Moss and Jamie Armitage with choreography by Carrie-Anne Ingrouille, the production is intriguing. At first look, it’s everything some theatergoers might not like: really loud and very Vegas residency, but as the show opens up it proves delightfully smart, substantive, impeccably researched, and succeeds at cleverly melding the past and present.

The show has a strong following – the kind that feel it’s OK to sing along with the actors onstage. But it’s also appealing to history buffs and old-fashioned musical theater fans alike. “Six” is a crowd pleaser and deservedly so.

Back to the queen contest. The obvious choice for Henry’s most consequential spouse is either Catherine of Aragon, the true queen, or maybe Anne Boleyn, the second wife for whom he parted with Rome and the mother England’s greatest monarch, Elizabeth I. But the show gives each woman her due, and they bare their souls. Whether they were dragged into Henry’s orbit because of beauty, ambitious family, or simple accidents of time and place, no one escaped unscathed. Who suffered the most? That’s something you’ll have to decide for yourself.

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Theater

‘The Playhouse’ a triumphant return to live performance

Tony Cisek helps make playwright’s story shine

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Tony Cisek (Photo courtesy Folger Theatre)

‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’
Through Aug. 28
Folger Theatre at the National Building Museum
401 F St., N.W.
$20-$85
Events.folger.edu

Ordinarily set designer Tony Cisek is charged with making a playwright’s story shine. His latest project was a little different.

As an integral player in Folger Theatre’s return to live performance, Cisek directed the creation of The Playhouse, the National Building Museum’s current Summer Block Party installation and the stage for performances of an abbreviated 90-minute intermission-less version of Shakespeare’s magical comedy “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

The project comes from a moment of synergy where the University of South Carolina’s idea for a pop-up theater met the Folger’s need for a venue while the Folger Shakespeare Library undergoes major renovations, mostly involving public space and its closed, marble exterior, he explains. And the National Building Museum, looking for vital summer programming, was happy to join the partnership.

After pandemic-related postponements and delays, Cisek took the helm, inheriting both a set designed by University of South Carolina’s Jim Hunter, cleverly made to pack up on two tractor trailers and move from stop to stop with Washington as its first stop, and exhibitions including a life-sized immersive installation based on Joanna Robson’s book “A Knavish Lad,” which is a part of the Folger Shakespeare Library collection.

“I’d never worked where the central aesthetic is not mine,” says the out designer. “This has been more about pragmatics and logistics, and the art part really took a backseat. But that’s OK. I go in wanting every show to succeed and you never at the beginning know what that’s going to take but you do it.”

Confronted with an admittedly challenging and slightly unfamiliar project, the four-time Helen Hayes Award winner with almost 30 years’ experience in set design, soldiered forward. Building a theater in the museum’s soaring atrium with its forest of mindboggling immense Corinthian columns presented possibilities and problems. His immediate tasks were how to sit Hunter’s set in the space, how to surround it, how to seat the audience, and what the audience’s journey would be from the moment they walk in the building.

Quickly, Cisek and team realized the work at hand was mostly about infrastructure. There was no infrastructure for hanging lights. In fact, there were no lights. They needed speakers and cables too. Everything had to be brought in and rented for 10-12 weeks at no small expense.

Fortunately, he has a long history working with lighting designers: “I like to put my nose in other designers’ business. What elements are going to make this moment shine? I’m not interested in staying my little silo. That’s not a formula for a successful production. My reward is that the audience finds enjoyment, is moved and provoked. Otherwise, why bother?”

Originally from Queens, New York, Cisek first came to Washington to study pre-med at Georgetown University. But increasingly, he became interested in theater, and eventually went on to study scenic design at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. After receiving his master’s in 1994, he planned to stay on in Manhattan but an onslaught of job offers brought him back to D.C. where he’s worked consistently ever since.

Creating a realistic set doesn’t particularly interest him unless it’s specifically called for by the playwright or director. He adds, “Strict naturalism is better achieved by film. On stage, it leaves little room for the audience’s imagination. And when there are naturalistic elements in the design, I like to leave air for the audience to fill in. Stories can be helped by a naturalist environment, but I move away from naturalism and try to find something poetic, or evocative, or some way to address the larger arc of the story.”

Having lived and worked in the DMV for most of his life, it’s no surprise he’s picked up some tips from the locals. For his current project, he’s utilized the idea of a zone transition, which is how Zelda Fichlander, who founded Arena Stage, referred to the journey of her audience in the original Arena – 20 feet of dim, low-ceilinged space in which in theory you left your world behind and cleansed your mind for what you were about to see.

With The Playhouse, Cisek has created a sort of tunnel through which you progress before emerging to a staggering view of the stage and columns. See it if you can.

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