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.”
‘John Proctor is the Villain’ draws cannily from American lit
An enthralling work replete with pitch-perfect performances
‘John Proctor is the Villain’
Through June 5
1501 14th St., N.W.
$50 – $95
There’s a lot going on in Carter Smith’s junior English class at Helen County High in rural Georgia.
Not only are they tackling Arthur Miller’s colonial Salem-set play “The Crucible,” but budget cuts require that he open each class with 10 minutes of sex-ed over six weeks. To complicate matters further, there are unsavory rumors surrounding two of Smith’s female students – one whose father has been accused of sexual misconduct and another who’s absconded to Atlanta under a cloud of scandal.
Playwright Kimberly Belflower’s terrific new work, “John Proctor is the Villain,” a world premiere now running at Studio Theatre, draws cannily from American literature, examining the meaning of witch hunt in Miller’s red scare allegory compared to what’s happening in her play’s one stop light (soon-to-be two) town in 2018.
Filled with pop-culture references – lots of Taylor Swift, Beyoncé, Lizzo, Lorde, and even fashion guru Tim Gunn’s catch phrase “make it work,” the play’s two hours with a fifteen-minute intermission moves quickly as action unfolds in many scenes scattered throughout a semester.
At a time when #MeToo was changing from allegations about individuals to something bigger, the smart girls in Smith’s class want to form a feminism club. A well-meaning young counselor, Ms. Gallagher (Lida Maria Benson) thinks maybe it’s not the right time, but with the help of Smith as moderator, it happens.
Dave Register’s Carter Smith is a handsome, young teacher with a charming slight Georgia accent. The girls in his honors class admire him for different reasons including – in no particular order – his picture-perfect marriage and Christian faith, his sensitivity, and the bulge in his sweat pants.
Led by overachieving yet self-effacing Beth (Miranda Rizzolo), the feminist club shifts focus from timely topics to interpersonal relationships and spicy gossip. Other members include the local Baptist preacher’s daughter Raelynn (Jordan Slattery), adamant Ivy (Resa Mishina) with the handsy father, and outgoing Nell (Deidre Staples), a big city transplant new to a school where friendships date back to first grade.
Eventually two boys join the group – Mason (Ignacio Diaz-Silverio) a regular dude in need of extra credit who proves surprisingly progressive, and Lee (Zachary Keller) a strapping guy who wants to be near to his ex-girlfriend.
Midsemester, volatile Shelby (Juliana Sass), a troubled girl with a secret, returns to Smith’s class with her own significant take on Miller’s honorable adulterer John Proctor and what makes a witch hunt.
While it’s definitely an ensemble piece, Raelynn’s coming of age arc is the most interesting. With a blank countenance similar to Jenelle from “Teen Mom” (my pop culture reference), Slattery plumbs her church girl part for laughs and meaning. By play’s end, she’s engaging in a defiant dance not unlike the Crucible girls who danced naked in the forest.
Despite taking inspiration from Miller’s intense drama, the playwright slips in a sweet scene of bashful young love straight from the pages of Thornton Wilder. It’s an endearing moment, seamlessly worked into the story.
Luciana Stecconi’s brightly lit, pale blue-walled set is pure verité: standard issue desks and chairs, clutter, a white board adhered to an old blackboard, and a bulletin board dedicated to Georgia’s women writers with Flannery O’Connell featured dead center. Sound designer Kathy Ruvuna further revs up the teen energy with blasts of familiar-sounding pop music.
But mostly, it’s veteran director Marti Lyon who brings to life an enthralling work replete with hope, rage, and pitch-perfect performances. In 2018, Lyons had great success at Studio with “The Wolves,” a candid glimpse into the lives of adolescent girls who play soccer. And now with Studio’s current offering, she again makes audiences privy to an otherwise mostly closed world.
Out actor embraces role in audacious, healing production
‘There’s Always the Hudson’ confronts painful wounds head on
‘There’s Always the Hudson’
May 9-June 5
641 D St., N.W.
Healing can be messy, says out actor Justin Weaks. And in “There’s Always the Hudson,” playwright/actor Paola Lázaro’s audacious and unapologetically healing new work, actors can’t cower and audiences are compelled to experience a little discomfort along with the entertainment.
Lázaro and Weaks play best friends Lola and T (short for Toussaint) who met in a sexual abuse survivors support group three years previously. At some point, the pair made a pact that if things failed to improve, they’d kill themselves. When Lola says today’s the day to die, they agree to first settle scores with some of those who’ve hurt them. The night is about them taking New York City by storm and confronting their wounds head-on.
T is Black, gay, a Haitian immigrant, and a survivor of sexual abuse and trauma – identities that can heavily stigmatize in our culture. Throughout the course of the play, the audience watches as T increasingly find his voice.
Weaks, 31, says, “Lola and T have a lot to say and world has told them they’re not interested in hearing from people like them. But this is the night they say the shit that needs to be said.”
And without hesitation, he adds, “Playing T is one of greatest honors of my career, a dream come true.”
The piece is different from anything else he’s done, and for the playwright and star to agree to take this ride with him, he feels, is extraordinary: “You’ve never seen people talk like this on stage, I promise. It’s radical.”
A lean and mean intermission-less 80 minutes, the play covers some heavy terrain but it’s also “funny as hell – and might leave you with a little bit of whiplash,” he says. Its director, Jess McLeod, whom Weaks charmingly describes as “a fiery general with an enormous heart, the perfect person for the job,” keeps the five-person cast on task.
While Weaks has been a part of new works in the past, this time feels unique. It wasn’t until a little over a month ago that T, a character conceived by the playwright four years ago, was rewritten as gay.
“The play worked with T straight, but now that he’s gay it’s hitting on so many cylinders,” he says. “I’m not sure that change could have happened if someone else was in the role. I like to think my presence in the process maybe informed that in some way and deepened the work.”
In November 2021, Weaks left D.C. for New York. “It was time, and ‘There’s Always the Hudson’ is the perfect punctuation mark for the end of my time in Washington.”
Just three weeks after coming to D.C. from North Carolina in 2016, the gifted actor was diagnosed with HIV: “I didn’t know anybody yet. Didn’t have community yet. I had come to work, for a year, maybe two. Never foresaw being embraced by the community in the way that I’ve been.
“I understand what it feels like to have an identity that is stigmatized. Part of why I feel connected to T., through playing him, I get to feel. By stepping into his journey, I get to heal a lot of stuff.”
During Weaks’ time in the DMV, he earned multiple Helen Hayes Award nods winning in 2017 for his supporting turn in Theater Alliance’s “Word Becomes Flesh.” Other performances of note, among many, include “BLKS” and “Gloria” (Woolly Mammoth) “G of the Ocean” (Round House) “Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea” (Theater Alliance) and “Curve of Departure” and “Pipeline.” (Studio).
“There’s Always the Hudson” was two weeks into rehearsal in March 2020 when production was shut down due to COVID. Everyone involved felt then it was an important and affecting work, and they still feel that way, he says. Now the original cast and creative team have reconvened to deliver on the play’s promise.
“It’s a thrill to create a role that will forever be a part of the American theater canon. When I graduated from college 10 years ago there were no parts like T. I’m excited that he’ll be inhabited by many actors after me, but I’ll always feel protective of Toussaint.”
Playwright pays tribute to gay grandfather in new Round House show
‘Jennifer, Who Is Leaving’ marks Gould’s first return to D.C. since 2017
‘Jennifer, Who Is Leaving’
April 28 & 30
Round House Theatre
4545 East-West Highway
Bethesda, Md. 20814
Morgan Gould is an enthusiastic LGBTQ ally and it’s reflected in her work.
With “Jennifer, Who Is Leaving,” the New York-based playwright pays tribute to her gay grandfather. Billed as a developmental reading in Round House Theatre’s National Capital New Play Festival, the piece marks Gould’s first professional return D.C. since 2017 when Studio Theatre presented “I Wanna Fucking Tear You Apart,” her daring dive into the often-complex relationships of plus-sized women and their gay male best friends.
Gould says, “A woman who is fat and has five gay men in her favorites on her iPhone is an ally and that’s me.” She adds that a continuation of gay themes in her plays makes perfect sense — “That’s my thing. It’s what I know about.”
Prior to the reading, Gould, who is also directing, will have a week to rehearse with an “embarrassingly good cast” comprised of local talent Floyd King, Nancy Robinette, Kimberly Gilbert, and Annie Fang. The two readings (April 28 and 30) will be separated by an extra day of rehearsal when Gould will most likely make some changes to the script.
In addition to five readings, the new play festival features two fully staged world premieres through May 8: Tim J. Lord’s “We declare you a terrorist…” and Charly Evon Simpson’s “it’s not a trip it’s a journey.”
WASHINGTON BLADE: Hey, Morgan. What’s new?
MORGAN GOULD: I still have many gay friends. Two guys call me about 14 times a day. That’s not new, but COVID has turned me into a Facetime gal versus a hang out with friends in the living room kind of gal.
And since theater hasn’t been a thing, really, I’ve spent most of the pandemic working on TV stuff. I wrote on the adaptation of “A League of Their Own” starring Abby Jacobson who’s also head writer. It’s coming out in July on Amazon. I haven’t seen it yet, so hopefully it’s good. Like the film but with different characters, and retains the same feminist vibe.
BLADE: So, when did you write “Jennifer, Who Is Leaving”?
GOULD: I wrote the first draft before the pandemic. This was the last thing I brought into class as a playwrighting fellow at Juilliard before graduating in 2019. I’d written intense personal stuff, and a lot about being fat. Why not give myself a fun breath of fresh air? My gay grandfather was probably the funniest person I’ve ever known. Still, this play becomes intense. I can’t help it.
BLADE: Tell us about your gay grandfather.
GOULD: His name was Joey. He died at 90-something in 2008. He and his partner Bob were very over-the-top gay men who never said they were gay. He always introduced Bob as his nephew. Bob designed shoes and my grandfather designed wedding dresses. They had a little dog. They weren’t straight.
My grandfather was performatively snobby. When dementia put him in a nursing home his catty sense of humor took a crazy turn. He could be off the wall inappropriate. As teenagers, my sister and I thought it was hilarious. My mother, of course, was mortified.
BLADE: Is your new play about that?
GOULD: It’s based on my grandfather’s relationship to a woman who was his nurse’s aide in the nursing home, as well as the ways women take care of men. There are three generations of women in the play who all in some fashion have a relation to caretaking for men.
It takes place late night at a Dunkin’ Donuts. A crazy snowstorm forces the old man and the nurse’s aide to pull over and ride out the blizzard surrounded by donuts. The night manager is an older woman. I’m from Massachusetts and worked at Dunkin’ Donuts when I was young. It seems there was one on almost every corner.
BLADE: Have you been to D.C. since your play at Studio?
GOULD: It’s my first time back to work on one of my projects. I’ve been to see my boyfriend Mike Daisey’s shows. He’s a monologist who has performed at Woolly Mammoth and more recently Arena. D.C. is great. I like the restaurants, especially Le Diplomate and weirdly the little dim sum place near Studio.
BLADE: What do you expect from Round House’s new play festival?
GOULD: Ultimately, I hope to walk out with a script that says this is ready for production and hopefully some theater will do it. That’s the dream.
There’s a lot out of my control. But yeah, I think people will like it. It’s a hopeful play with a dark night of the soul.
BLADE: Anything else?
GOULD: What is the runtime you ask? 75 minutes, babe. No intermission.
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