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SPRING ARTS 2020: Symphonies, opera, Gay Men’s Chorus and more on spring slate

Out British pianist Stephen Hough to play, present essay book mid-April

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Vaughn Ryan Midder as Emmett Till in Mosaic Theater Compay’s ‘The Till Trilogy.’ (Photo by Iwan Bagus)

With spring comes a rush of exciting theater. Options abound.

Through April 12, Arena Stage (1101 6th St., S.W.), presents out Cuban-American playwright Eduardo Machado’s “Celia and Fidel.” Machado’s new play imagines a conversation between Cuba’s most influential female revolutionary and its most notorious political leader in a contest between morality and power. Arena’s out artistic director Molly Smith directs. Details at arenastage.org.

Ford’s Theatre (511 10th St., N.W.) is marking spring with “Guys and Dolls” (March 13-May 20), composer Frank Loesser’s classic 1950s musical comedy drawn from Damon Runyon’s slangy short stories set in Prohibition-era Broadway. Peter Flynn directs. Details at fordstheatre.org

At Signature Theatre (4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington), out artistic director Eric Schaeffer stages “Camille Claudel” (March 24-April 19), a world premiere by librettist Nan Knighton and composer Frank Wildhorn. In turn-of-the-century Paris, groundbreaking artist and freethinker Camille struggles to shake the shadow of the powerful men in her life — a famous overbearing brother, and her lover, genius sculptor Auguste Rodin. The cast includes Broadway’s Teal Wicks in the title role and handsome Hugh Panaro as Rodin.

Also, at Signature, out theater practitioners, playwright Norman Allen and director Joe Calarco, reunite for a reprise of “Nijinsky’s Last Dance” (April 14-May 24). Famed early 20th century Russian ballet great Vaslav Nijinsky inhabits characters from his past, as “he journeys from his Imperial Ballet School acceptance at age 10, to his relationship with mentor and lover Sergei Pavlovich Diaghilev, to his innovative choreography that shocked a world in tumult from the Great War.” Details at sigtheatre.org

Tyson’s 1st Stage (1524 Spring Hill Rd., Tysons, Va.) presents out composer William Finn’s inspiring and funny musical “A New Brain” (March 26-April 19). Based on Finn’s experience with a life-threatening brain condition, it’s the story of frustrated young composer Gordon Schwinn (Aaron Bliden) whose scary brush with mortality leads him to discover the healing power of art. Russell Rinker plays Gordon’s boyfriend Roger. Details at 1ststagetysons.org.

At Theater J (1529 16th St., N.W.), Naomi Jacobson repeats her star turn as sexpert Dr. Ruth Westheimer in Mark St. Germain’s “Becoming Dr. Ruth” (March 27-April 19). Out director/actor Holly Twyford stages the one-woman play. Details at theaterj.org

Olney Theatre Center (2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd., Olney, Md.) presents “The Humans” (April 1-May 3), the brilliant family drama by out playwright Stephen Karam. Winner of the 2016 Tony Award for Best Play, Karam’s play puts the spotlight on an unraveling, working class family as they gather for Thanksgiving in one of the adult daughter’s dingy new apartment in Manhattan’s Chinatown. Aaron Posner directs. Details at olneytheatre.org.

D.C.’s Mosaic Theater Company (Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St., N.E.) plans an ambitious world premiere staging of a three-play cycle following the life and legacy of Emmett Till, the young African-American boy whose lynching in part set off the civil rights movement. “The Till Trilogy” (April 1-June 21), written by Ifa Bayeza and directed by Talvin Wilks, consists of “The Ballad of Emmett Till,” “That Summer in Sumner” and “Benevolence.” The cast includes out actors Vaughn Ryan Midder as Emmett and Jaysen Wright. Details at mosaictheater.org.

At Quotidian Theatre Company (The Writer’s Center, 4508 Walsh St., Bethesda, Md.) out actor David Dubov plays uptight, judgmental Pastor Manders in Henrik Ibsen’s masterpiece “Ghosts” (April 3-26). Details at quotidiantheatre.org

In Penn Quarter, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company (641 D St., N.W.) presents Paola Lázaro’s new work “There’s Always the Hudson” (April 6-May 3). T and Lola, a pair of sexual abuse survivors who meet through a support group (played respectively by talented out actor Justin Weaks and Lázaro, the drama’s author) make a pact to exact revenge on everyone who’s hurt them. Jess McLeod directs. Details at woollymammoth.net.

April is Broadway at the Kennedy Center with the 50th anniversary production of “Jesus Christ Superstar” (April 14-26), the rock opera with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Tim Rice. Also slated is the infectiously fun, Broadway musical classic “Bye Bye Birdie” (April 23-27). Details at kennedy-center.org.

With inimitable physicality, Synetic Theater (1800 South Bell St., Chrystal City) presents a radically reimagined version of Calderon’s Spanish classic “La Vida es Sueno” (April 22-May 17) starring out actor Alex Mills. Next, Helen Hayes Award-winning out actor Phillip Fletcher plays Florinda in the farce “Servant of Two Masters” (June 20- July 12). Details at synetictheater.org

At Rep Stage (10901 Little Patuxent Pkwy, Columbia, Md.), out director Rick Hammerly is helming “Dames at Sea,” (April 30–May 17), a takeoff on legendary Busby Berkeley’s kaleidoscopic musicals. The 1968 Off-Broadway hit follows young Ruby as she taps her way from midwestern anonymity to B stardom. Music by Jim Wise. Details at repstage.org.

Later this spring, Studio Theatre (1501 14th St., N.W.) presents “Fun Home” (May 13-June 21) the marvelous queer coming-of-age musical set against life in a funeral home. Based on the graphic memoir by out cartoonist Alison Bechdel (first known for the long-running comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For”) the marvelous, Tony Award-winning work boasts music by Jeanine Tesori and book/lyrics by Lisa Kron. Studio’s David Muse directs. Details at studiotheatre.org.

At Rorschach Theatre (Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St., N.E.), Jenny McConnell Frederick directs Georgette Kelly’s “F*ck la vie d’artiste,” (May 22-June 14). Set in France in 2005, it’s the story of an aspiring French-Moroccan artist, who ekes out a living giving tours of the room where Vincent Van Gogh died. But when Vincent’s ghost begins to speak to her, she finds herself torn between her art and her love interest, an American woman named Avery. Details at rorschachtheatre.com.

And at Spooky Action Theater (1810 16th St., N.W.), it’s gay playwright Jordon Harrison’s “Maple and Vine” (June 4-28). While forsaking cell phones and sushi for cigarettes and chicken à la king, two miserable 21st century urbanites seek salvation via an idealistic community that exists in a permanent state of 1955. Stevie Zimmerman directs. Details at spookyacitontheater.org

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Be prepared to clap for ‘Nollywood Dreams’ at Round House

Theatergoers asked to play audience of Nigerian chat show

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Joel Ashur (Wale Owusu) and Jacqueline Youm (Adenikeh) in ‘Nollywood Dreams’ at Round House Theatre. (Photo by Margot Schulman Photography)

‘Nollywood Dreams’
Through July 3
Round House Theatre
4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda, MD 20814
$55-$78
Roundhousetheatre.org

If you see “Nollywood Dreams” at Round House Theatre, be prepared to clap a lot, whether you like it or not.  For almost a third of Jocelyn Bioh’s 100-minute-long comedy, theatergoers are asked to play the audience of an Oprahesque Nigerian chat show with a big personality host and large projected words (cheer, applause) prompting the house to make lots of noise. It’s tough not to comply. 

Set in ‘90s Nigeria, it’s all about Nollywood, the nickname for the Lagos-based film industry that ranks above Hollywood and second only to India’s Bollywood in the number of films produced annually. 

Decked out in fabulous traditional attire, the spirited finger-snapping TV host Adenikeh (Jacqueline Youm) leads with niceties before going in for the kill. Her big-name guests prove central to the story:  director Gbenga Ezie (Yao Dogbe) recently returned home from America and looking to make a Nollywood hit; gorgeous veteran star Fayola (Yetunde Felix-Ukwu), who’s counting on a comeback to revive a slipping career; and Wale Owusu, Nigeria’s “Sexiest Man Born,” played by the faultlessly cast Joel Ashur. 

Glued to the TV in the office of the family travel business, sisters Dede and Ayamma Okafor (played by Renea S. Brown and Ernaisja Curry, respectively) faithfully watch Adenikeh’s eponymous program, breathlessly taking in every Nollywood scoop and subsequent development. While elder sister Dede is content to swoon over male pulchritude, Ayamma has aspirations to be more than a fan, she wants to act. When director Gbenga holds an open casting call to find a fresh face for his new love triangle romance, “The Comfort Zone,” she grasps at the chance. 

A broad comedy broadly acted by an appealing cast, Bioh’s storyline is predictable, a Cinderella story without surprise. It’s a loud world seemingly inhabited by stock characters – the heartthrob, a shady film auteur, an aging film actress, squabbling sisters – but despite all, they aren’t without nuance. The characters prove dimensional and worthy of some investment.  

Also, along with the over-the-top comedy, Bioh’s work refreshingly shows an Africa that isn’t always presented on stage. People’s dreams, desires, and relationships are set against a bustling urban sprawl culturally glued together by the cult of celebrity.

The action plays out on Jonathan Dahm Robertson’s terrific revolving (sometimes dizzyingly so) set made up of three locales — the travel office, daytime TV set, and Gbenga’s well-appointed Nollywood Dreams Studio (with the outsized signage to prove it). It’s an energizing and memorable design. 

Brandee Mathies’s costumes are almost a show in themselves. Exuberantly colorful, they cleverly bring together traditional garb and western silhouettes with joyful flourishes of Nigerian flare. The showbiz folks are costumed, well, showier. It’s short skirts and glittery stilettos for fan favorite Fayola, long touted for her Tina Turner legs.

A Ghanian-American writer, playwright and actor, Bioh grew up on Nollywood flicks. In fact, “Beyonce: The President’s Daughter” (2006), one of her favorites, was an inspiration for “Nollywood Dreams.” Her debut work “School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play,” an entertaining tale of teenage trials and tribulations set at a boarding school in provincial ‘80s Ghana was a great success for Round House in 2019.

And at the helm of Round House’s current offering is Theater Alliance’s producing artistic director Raymond O. Caldwell. As gay, Black, and Asian, Caldwell sometimes refers to himself as third culture. In this instance, the Helen Hayes-winning director has heartily plunged into Bioh’s vision and with relish and created a piece rife with fun and feeling.

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‘Atemporal’ explores intersection of misdiagnosis, identity

Sianna Joslin to star in D.C.’s latest one-person show

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At age 16, Sianna Joslin learned they had a disability. They were diagnosed with temporal lobe epilepsy, a disorder associated with seizures caused by the excessive release of electrical signals from some of the brain’s nerve cells. It would not be until a decade later they found out that, from the beginning, they had been misdiagnosed.

This unexpected discovery spurred a period of deep self-reflection, Joslin explained. When coming to terms with her initial diagnosis, she created a 20-minute standup show entitled “Temporal,” discussing disability and sexuality. This July, she plans to circle back to her first performance with a new, autobiographical one-person show: “Atemporal,” which explores misdiagnosis, disability, trans identity and grief.

“I just naturally gravitated towards the idea of having another show about it,” she explained. “It’s kind of a requiem for the version of myself that I had built out of this trellis of having a disability.”

The show delves into their experience navigating relationships with both disability and gender identity, following Joslin’s discovery that they were non-binary in the years following their diagnosis.

“When I got off my epilepsy meds, I realized that I was experiencing some form of gender dysphoria,” they said. With “my brain kind of resetting, I viewed myself in an entirely different way. There’s so many different intersections between disability, sexuality (and) gender identity.”

In the performance, Joslin also looks at the experience of losing her father, and the grief that came from the experience. She never came out to him before his death, which complicates her experiences with memory and identity. The show also opens and closes with musical performances, tapping into Joslin’s lifelong passion for music.

“Having done a similar show before, I know that it’s emotionally draining,” Joslin noted. “But it’s so worth it at the end to be able to share something that’s so personal.”

Joslin hopes that those who do not hold identities examined in the performance — be they cisgender, straight or able-bodied — will be able to learn about experiences that differ from their own. And, perhaps more personally, they want those who relate to experiences outlined in the show to know that they are seen.

“Having been diagnosed with epilepsy for a decade is not something that happens every day,” she said. “The individual experiences that I’ve had going to a club and not being able to look at the strobe lights or going to a concert and having to wear sunglasses, that impacts a lot of people with epilepsy.”

“This is something that a lot of people experience,” Joslin added, “and we can get through it together.”

“Atemporal” will be performed in 3 Stars at 3270 M St. NW, Washington, D.C., on July 15 at 9:30 p.m., July 16 at 2:15 p.m., July 17 at 7 p.m., July 23 at 5 p.m. and July 24 at 6:30 p.m.

The show takes part in the 2022 Capital Fringe Festival, a series of shows hosted by local arts nonprofit Capital Fringe. Tickets can be purchased for $15, and more information can be found at the Capital Fringe Festival website or the show’s webpage.

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Queer rom-com ‘In His Hands’ combines sexuality, laughs

A world premiere at Mosaic Theater Company

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Playwright Benjamin Benne (center) with actors Michael J. Mainwaring (left) and Josh Adams (right). (Photo by Chris Banks)

‘In His Hands’
June 22 through July 17
Mosaic Theater Company
Atlas Performing Arts Center
1333 H St., N.E.
$20-68
Mosaictheater.org

Sexuality, spirituality, and laughs – all three coincide in rising playwright Benjamin Benne’s “In His Hands,” a queer rom-com making its world premiere this week at Mosaic Theater Company.

Here’s the plot: Daniel (Michael J. Mainwaring), a video game wizard and aspiring Lutheran pastor, is falling for Christian (Josh Adams), but as the pair explore the potential of their new relationship, voices from Christian’s past threaten to derail what’s developing.

Benne, 34, says, “The story I’m exploring is about two men who form a relationship that starts to feel really deep and rich and begins to tread into romantic territory. Because it’s accessible as a rom-com, I like to talk about it that way. But also, it asks more difficult questions about the often-fraught territory between Christianity and being gay. That was true for me growing up in Southern California.”

With the play’s themes and team involved (José Carrasquillo directs), the production is ideally suited for Pride month. And it’s been great for Benne timing wise too: Just hours after his recent graduation ceremony from grad school at Yale in Connecticut, he hopped a train to D.C. and started rehearsals the following morning. “It’s been an exhausting but wonderful couple of weeks,” he says.

WASHINGTON BLADE: Are you covering familiar terrain with “In His Hands”?
BENJAMIN BENNE: I knew from a very young age that I was queer in many definitions of the word – attracted to men, feeling at odds in terms of how I fit into culture, being a lot more feminine than I think a lot of people were comfortable with, and that most of my interests could label feminine culturally.

BLADE: And with Christianity?
BENNE: Very much, I was raised in a fundamentalist conservative Christian household and still identify as Christian but my understanding of God and sexuality has become more expansive since leaving those institutions at 20.

BLADE: Are you quite involved with the premiere?
BENNE: I sure am. I’m really fussy when it comes to word choice and dialogue. For instance, I’d been working on my last project “Alma” [a recently produced riposte to Trump’s anti-Mexican rhetoric] for seven years. And while there was value to what the 27-year-old playwright was trying to accomplish, as a 34-year-old, I had to elevate the writing.
This time, it’s been a little easier. I started writing “In His Hands in 2016,” so it feels more in line with where I’m at as a writer now.

BLADE: Is the work political?
BENNE: “In His Hands” is a political play and a story about lives. I try to make sure the characters’ ideas about God and sex are part of the fabric of their stories and not just ideas.

BLADE: What inspired you?
BENNE: I wrote from a place of someone turning 30 and how do I return to my relationship with faith. It felt broken. Today, I’m not actively seeking a relationship with a religious institution, but I am with seeking that with God.

Increasingly, I find those around me in progressive circles are asking questions about relationships to spirituality — not sure why. Maybe because we’re on the verge of climate collapse or mass extinction? Is humanity about to face the fate of the dinosaurs? Whatever, people are asking, Why am I here? Am I connected to something bigger than myself?

BLADE: When did you become a playwright?
BENNE: I got very serious about it two to three years after undergrad at Cal State Fullerton. My father had passed away, and I felt that if I wanted to pursue writing I needed to take it seriously. I grinded real hard in Seattle for three years taking playwrighting classes, joining writers’ groups, writing every second outside of my day jobs. Something about my father passing made me feel freer to write, and no longer beholden to expectations.

BLADE: When did you know it could work?
BENNE: I prayed if I’m supposed to keep writing I need a bone thrown my way and that’s when I got the fellowship at Many Voices in Minneapolis. I took it as a sign. I was able to work on writing and professional development – how to turn playwrighting into a living, which pushed me into grad school at Yale.

BLADE: Do you mind pitching the show?
BENNE: Oh, not at all. It’s a lot of fun. And if you’re into humor and a really sensual story that’s helpful in terms of this elusive connection between spirituality and sexuality, it’s worth your time for sure.

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