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Black Death-themed play ‘The Amateurs’ was oddly prescient

Production shuttered amidst coronavirus concerns

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The Amateurs review, gay news, Washington Blade
John Keabler and Evan Casey in ‘The Amateurs.’ Despite closing early, the cast found the show oddly prescient. (Photo by Teresa Castracane Photography)

On Tuesday midday, Olney Theatre Center’s lovingly rendered and urgently topical production of out playwright Jordan Harrison’s “The Amateurs” was officially cancelled, joining the veritable multitude of other area closures. 

Because it was presented in Olney’s more intimate Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab, the play ran a tad longer than shows in larger venues, but ultimately Maryland Gov. Hogan’s executive order and Olney’s concern for the health and safety of audience, artists and staff shut them down.

What makes Harrison’s 2018 play unwittingly and unnervingly timely is that it’s set against Medieval Europe’s devastating Black Death.

The plot follows a group of itinerant actors doing their best to keep one step ahead of the pestilence. As they pull their cart forward each day and sleep rough by night, they’re also rehearsing their new production of Noah’s Flood. The cranky troupe’s ultimate goal is to delight the Duke with their new work and be granted sanctuary and safety from the terrifying scourge behind the walls of his duchy.

Of course, when Olney hierarchy decided to actually produce the show (spring, 2019), no one had ever heard of COVID-19; they never imagined they’d be staging something that might prove so uncomfortably current.

Out cast member Michael Russotto, who plays the troupe’s unsentimental manager Larking, says “Rarely has the phrase ‘life imitates art’ felt more applicable. I first became aware of this script over a year ago, when I participated in a completely cold reading of several scenes from the play. I fell in love with it instantly.”

It’s filled with humor, high and low. But it’s dark, too. 

When one of the actors dies from plague, there’s little time to bury much less mourn him. As Larking (Russotto) makes it clear, the show must go on. For the dead actor’s sister Hollis (Emily Townley), or his emotionally tortured, lover Brom (John Keabler), it isn’t so easy. The remainder of the resilient squad — simple scenery designer Gregory (Evan Casey), hardboiled Rona (Rachel Zampelli) and a mysterious stranger, The Physic (James Konicek) — are survivors.

Shortly after learning the show had closed, Russotto recalls that because the production itself coincided so directly with a deadly, world-wide pandemic, it felt a bit like being in an episode of “The Twilight Zone.”

“It’s one of those spooky coincidences the universe throws at us occasionally; one that almost makes me believe there is a higher intelligence pulling the strings, an intelligence with a wicked sense of irony,” he says.

There’s a stunning moment in the play when Evan Casey pulls off his shaggy Gregory wig and plays the playwright, citing his experiences and thoughts on the AIDS epidemic and the early beginnings of humanism. Certainly, there’s no mention of the current pandemic, but nonetheless, it’s what came to mind for many in the press night audience.

When the COVID pandemic was announced, Russotto says, everyone involved in the production initially felt like they had to continue to share this timely gem of a play with theatergoers no matter what and damn the consequences.

Perhaps the cast and crew were the conduit to deliver a message of hope through art, a circumstance that seemed weirdly ordained by some outside sentient force?

But then practicality set in: “There was lots of lively debate over the virtues of carrying on vs concern over the danger to ourselves and our potential audiences. We want to do what feels right artistically, but we also want to be socially responsible. Rock/hard place.”

With so many theaters closed, the weeks and maybe months ahead look pretty bleak for many artists. Nonetheless Russotto remains positive, a sentiment expressed on social media by many actors. He says, “I feel more than ever that artists have a responsibility to keep creating in times of crisis.”

In the face of the current administration and the pandemic, he says, it requires artists, “to cling to the artistic impulse, to solve problems creatively, to speak up, and to shrug off (their) own complacency. So it ain’t so bad.”

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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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Theater

‘Ballad of Emmett Till’ recounts last two weeks of a life cut short

A deftly staged and well-acted look at seminal American tragedy

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Stars of ‘The Ballad of Emmett Till’ (l-r): Jaysen Wright, Antonio Michael Woodard as Till, and Vaughn Ryan Midder. (Photo by Teresa Castracane)

‘The Till Trilogy: The Ballad of Emmett Till’
Through Nov. 20
Mosaic Theater Company
Atlas Performing Arts Center
1333 H St., N.E.
$50-$64
Mosaictheater.org

“The Ballad of Emmett Till,” the first part of playwright Ifa Bayeza’s “The Till Trilogy” (now playing at Mosaic Theater Company), recounts the last two weeks of the title character’s short life.

There are bursts of joy and laughter during those days, but always lurking is the knowledge that the Black 14-year-old’s infectious vitality will soon be horrifically snuffed out for allegedly whistling at a white woman.

The piece, deftly staged by Talvin Wilks, opens with the cast gathering on a dimly lit stage, hauntingly chanting the boy’s name, a sound that’s both foreboding and alluring, an invitation to hear his story, a seminal tragedy that drew the attention of a nation.

It’s the summer of 1955 and young Emmett, affectionately nicknamed Bobo, convinces his protective mother to grant him a little independence. Wearing a summer suit, new bucks, and that jaunty straw hat (made so familiar from the real life Till’s iconic photograph), he boards a train headed from Chicago to Money, Miss., where he’ll spend time with family in the Jim Crow South.

The road from the rural station to the humble home of Emmett’s Great Uncle Mose, a tenant farmer and lay preacher, narrows from two lanes to one to a dirt lane. It’s a happy place where everyone is expected to work. And despite being warned to defer to racist whites without question, Emmett and his cousin experience a freedom they don’t know on Chicago’s Southside. In the South, the city boys are free to drive and party at the boozy juke joint on Saturday nights. And while Emmett doesn’t take to picking the cotton or wringing a chicken’s neck, he adapts to other aspects of country life like fishing and going barefoot.

Antonio Michael Woodard nails Emmett as an energetic, smart-alecky, endearing youth, a child on the threshold of young manhood.

The stellar cast’s remaining five members play multiple roles: Billie Krishawn plays Emmett’s mother Mary Till-Bradley whose brave decision to display her son’s grossly disfigured corpse in an open casket for the world to see is credited with helping to spark the civil rights movement, as well as young boy cousin and Caroline Bryant, the white woman who set off the chain of events that led to Emmett’s death; out actors Jaysen Wright and Vaughn Ryan Midder convincingly double as both Emmett’s pals and the vicious white men who killed him; and the stalwartly versatile Jason Bowen plays Mose and other various Mississippians important to the story.

As the piece’s two older women, Rolanda Watts (of TV talk show fame) is excellent, instantly delineating between the two with a slight intonation or change of posture. She exudes warmth as Emmett’s great aunt, a kind woman who knew nothing about cotton but followed her heart and ended up the wife of a poor planter.

Bayeza sets the story in the past and present. At times, Emmett tells his own story, insisting he isn’t going to die, that he’s the chatty Chicago kid who will never stop talking, he’ll always be heard. The piece is also laced with sympathetic songs, ranging from hummable doowop to plaintive ballad, sung unaccompanied by some of the cast.

With roughly hewn planks and beams, set designer Andrew Cohen creates a barnlike atmosphere, evoking the scene of the crime. Sound designer Kwamina “Binnie” Biney adds atmosphere with the sounds of wild water fowls, and chickens clucking in the coop.

The playwright did her homework. In addition to describing his love for nice clothes and budding interest in girls, Bayeza details Emmett’s stammer and the bout with polio that left him with a withered leg. She touches on Mary’s jobs, relationships, intelligence, and ambition.
After a long, drawn-out death scene, the story’s painful ending is delivered as implicitly assured, but not without some promise of hope.

Running concurrently through Nov. 20 are the other parts of the trilogy: “That Summer in Sumner” and “Benevolence.”

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