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Arena Stage turns to film during COVID

Two compelling time capsules about life in quarantine



Nancy Robinette, gay news, Washington Blade
Actor Nancy Robinette (left) and masked director Molly Smith on location. (Photo by Suzanne Blue Star Boy/Arena Stage)

After live performances ceased to be an option in mid-March, Arena Stage turned to film. In doing so, they’ve created two compelling time capsules from the age of COVID-19 – the first, a docudrama of personal snapshots drawn from a single day; and the second, a revealing piece exploring young people’s thoughts, reactions, and experiences over the first three months of the pandemic.

The decision to film came to Arena’s artistic director Molly Smith in a flash. She explains, “I’m a voracious newspaper reader. I love the way papers do thumbnail sketches of people and thought we could do that in theater. But since we’re closed, I thought maybe we could shoot something outside?”

Smith hastily reached out to Arena’s deputy artistic director Seema Sueko, and together they discussed logistics while assembling a list of exceedingly diverse, real-life DMV-area subjects along with local playwrights and actors to inspire, create and perform 10 compelling monologues for film. The quietly impactful, fast-paced effort would be titled “May 22, 2020.”

Shot outdoors over one long day in various spots close to Arena Stage in Southwest, D.C., the 55-minute film features beautifully realized portrayals including, among others, two essential workers (Rachel Zampelli and Dawn Ursula); a D.C. detective (KenYatta Rogers), a children’s book author (Nancy Robinette); a beekeeper (Edward Gero); and a federal contractor, played by out actor Holly Twyford, whose COVID-19 symptoms won’t go away. Their insights are varied and unexpected and simultaneously relatable to what we’ve all experienced in the past months. There’s a worrying familiarity to their stories, and a glimmer of hope.

“The film is local in every way – place, actors and experience. When something is hyper local it becomes universal. It would have been an entirely different film had it included other cities. Every place has its own COVID-19 story and this is ours,” says Smith who has spent most of the pandemic social distancing with partner Suzanne Blue Star Boy.

She adds, “It’s important to go on living even during this time of sickness and death,” and her film is a glowing manifestation of that intention.

Arena’s other world premiere film, “Inside Voices: a film by Arena Stage’s Voices of Now ensembles,” is a 45-minute docudrama based on the real-life pandemic experiences of students from middle school through university. Directed by Arena’s Ashley Forman and Mauricio Pita, the film employs words, music, dance, and animation to explore themes of isolation, alienation, friendship and courage.

A longtime Arena program, Voices of Now provides a theatrical platform for youth and young artists. Ordinarily, the longtime program culminates with students coming together to perform and discuss their work in May, but this year the student artists required a new medium to express themselves.

While Forman came up with the idea to make a film, Pita was quick to agree: “We were in the middle of the development process in March,” he says, “And we didn’t want to stop. Clearly the pandemic changed the stories; we saw the opportunity to capture a moment in time in a different way.”

“We went from meeting on Zoom to having the artists send video clips from their phones – all the material had to go through their teachers: That’s 130 students with 20 clips each. Do the math. It’s a ton of transcription and writing. Our job was to make it cohesive and thought provoking.”

But for Pita, 35, theater has never been about sitting at a computer eight hours a day.

“Here’s the plot twist: Now I’m almost always in front of my computer,” he says with a laugh. “But that I’m able to make art and have an income during the pandemic is a huge gift.” Working exclusively from home, he goes out to walk his dog and to make grocery runs. COVID-19 has touched him personally. (Pita lost an uncle and close friend to the virus in March); he doesn’t question its potential lethality.

Originally an actor, he made a conscious decision to move away from the footlights: “I never felt in control as an actor. Because I am gay and Latino, I was cast in a lot of stereotypical gay Latino roles, and I played into that because I needed to survive. As director and educator, I can help to change the narrative.”

Film was unknown terrain to him. And although Arena hired an editor to work on “Inside Voices,” Pita remained heavily involved in all aspects of production. He felt he owed it to the artists. But despite the long hours and steep learning curve, he says “I’d do it again. And, I think, we might have to.”

You can watch “May 22, 2020” and “Inside Voices” for free at



New play explores bringing a partner home to meet traditional Indian parents

Olney’s ‘A Nice Indian Boy’ contains multiple surprises



Zi Alikhan (Photo courtesy of Olney Theatre)

‘A Nice Indian Boy’
Through April 9
Olney Theatre Center
2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney, MD 20832
$54 -$79

Zi Alikhan is queer, first-generation South Asian-American, and culturally Muslim. He’s also an accomplished rising director whose background lends a unique insight into his latest gig, staging Madhuri Shekar’s “A Nice Indian Boy,” currently playing at Olney Theatre Center.
“I’ve never worked on anything that’s felt more personal,” says Alikhan, who turns 36 next week. “It’s a tender, funny, layered story about Naveen, a queer first generation South Asian American who for the first time is bringing a partner home to meet his traditional Indian parents who live in the Bay Area. It’s also about what that means inside the culture and the community.”

Like Naveen (Carol Mazhuvancheril), the boyfriend Keshav (Noah Israel) is a Marathi-speaking Hindu conversant with Indian culture. If Naveen’s parents were ever going to accept a boyfriend for their son, he’d be the one. But there’s a glitch. Keshav is white, the adopted son of an Indian family. And his whiteness isn’t the play’s only surprise.

As director, Alikhan took a large role in casting the production. He recalls how Carol and Noah walked in the audition room “wearing these characters like their own clothes,” adding that “they’re funny, anxious, knocked over by love, when they’re meant to feel those ways. There’s a close proximity between the spirits of the characters and the actors playing them.”

During rehearsals, he was thrilled to enter a room filled with Indian actors who are Hindu, Muslim, Jain, Catholic, and Christian and together spoke four of India’s almost 300 spoken languages, proving the notion that a monolithic India is patently absurd.

Coming into the project as both friend and collaborator with playwright Madhuri Shaker, he felt an odd sense of homecoming. He says, “The conversations of queer identity that feel lifted from my own life. And conversations about the constant work that goes into understanding my parents and them understanding me, written with an extremely effortless, light touch in the way that only Madhuri can do, all felt familiar too.”

Growing up in the suburbs of Sacramento, young Alikhan was told he could go to college for anything he wanted except theater. Not an unusual stance for most immigrant parents, he says. An order he obeyed until he no longer could.

So, he studied sociology for two years at UC Berkely and did summer stock during breaks. No longer able to resist his true calling, he transferred to New York University and earned a degree in Musical Theatre Performance. But the years following graduation were tough: “I’m 5’7” and queer and brown. It was hard to be in an industry that didn’t know what to do with me.”

Frustrated and eager to work, Alikhan transitioned from actor to director largely to carve out a space for himself and other creatives like him. Now he counts “being able to create safe and generative space for people who might otherwise not be able to find it inside larger institutions” as his favorite part of the job.

Now it’s not unusual for the New York-based director to find himself working in 100-year-old, established theaters where he’s the first South Asian American who’s ever directed in its history. His presence alone assists in creating an inviting space for community that hasn’t historically seen themselves as part of that theater’s history.

Surprising to some, the relatively young, brown director’s dream projects lie in the American canon, especially Rodgers and Hammerstein whose midcentury works ask and redefine what it means to be an American. He enjoys looking at plays from the past and reframing them around those who were there but never allowed to be in the center of the story, and making those works feel very new without changing a line.

He adds, “Creatives of color in the theater community will agree there are many unconscious ways that we’ve been told our stories and families don’t belong and if we do it’s only in a very specific way. That’s changing a lot.”

And have the parents come around? He says they have. In the fall of 2022, he took them to the opening night of “Sanctuary City,” an important work about refugees that he directed for the esteemed Pasadena Playhouse in California.

“They’d come to other things, but this was different: a special performance with step and repeat and media and hundreds of people. I think they got some comfort from that.”

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Spring theater in D.C. offers something old and new

Celebrate Gloria Steinem, revisit ‘Angels in America’



Noah Israel (left) and Carol Mazhuvancheril play boyfriends in ‘A Nice Indian Boy’ at Olney Theatre Center. (Photo by Sarah Straub)

Though recent blooms might suggest otherwise, spring doesn’t officially begin until late March. And with the upcoming season comes a showering of exciting theater, both new and some more familiar.

At Olney Theatre Center, out South Asian-American director, Zi Alikhan is staging Madhuri Shekar’s “A Nice Indian Boy” (through April 9). In the touching, surprise-filled, intercultural comedy, Naveen, a gay South Asian-American meets Keshav, the Hindu boy of his dreams. But what might seem almost acceptable to Naveen’s traditional parents is further complicated when they learn Keshav is a white boy adopted by Indian parents.

Running through April 2 in Arlington is Synetic Theater’s movement-based fantasy “Beauty and the Beast.” Their version draws on the darkness and sensuality of the original French novel, “La Belle et la Bête,” and the 1946 Cocteau film of the same name. Co-directed by Ben Cunis & Vato Tsikurishvili and choreographed by the insanely imaginative Irina Tsikurishvili.

At Theater J, Susan Lynskey is Gloria Steinem in Emily Mann’s “Gloria: A Life” (through April 2), an exploration of the iconic feminist’s brilliant legacy and the women who inspired her. In the first act, she tells her story, and the second invites the audience to share their own. Out director/actor Holly Twyford directs.

Studio Theatre is moving into spring with Lynn Nottage’s poignantly entertaining “Clyde’s” (through April 9). It’s the story of a small group of parolees working as line cooks who find redemption making sandwiches in a truck stop diner despite difficult circumstances and an abusive boss played by Dee Dee Batteast. The appealing workers are played by Quinn M. Johnson, Brandon Ocasio, Kashayna Johnson, and Lamont Thompson. Candis C. Jones directs.

Signature Theatre in Arlington presents Stephen Sondheim’s gorgeous and rarely produced “Pacific Overtures” (through April 9). Set in mid-19th century Japan, it’s the compelling tale of an American expedition determined to open the then-isolated island to trade. Signature’s associate artistic director Ethan Heard directs a largely Asian cast including Jason Ma, Johnny Lee Jr., and Eymard Menenes Cabling.

At Shakespeare Theatre Company, it’s artistic director Simon Godwin’s hot ticket production of “King Lear” (through April 16) starring Patrick Page as the once revered head of arguably the Bard’s most dysfunctional royal family (and that’s saying a lot).

At Ford’s Theatre, Carrie Compere stars in “SHOUT SISTER SHOUT!” (March 15 – May 13). It’s the musical bio of trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe (1915-1973), the guitar playing, queer black woman who pioneered rock-and-roll in the 1940s. Before Elvis and Little Richard, there was Rosetta.

Written and directed by Awa Ogawa, “The Nosebleed” (March 31- April 23) is poised to make its regional premiere at Woolly Mammoth. Through a series of absurd autobiographical vignettes, Ogawa “delves into the sh*t show of parenthood, as both a parent and a child – and what it takes to forgive.”

Over by the Wharf, Arena Stage presents Tony Kushner’s truly awesome “Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches” (March 21 – April 23). Talented out actor Nick Westrate plays prophetic protagonist Prior Walter, a smart gay New Yorker who contracts AIDS in the 1980s, before there was effective treatment. Other members of an exciting cast include Justin Weaks, Michael Kevin Darnall, and Susan Rome. Edward Gero plays the loathsome Roy Cohn. János Szász directs.

Later this month, Round House Theatre brings back the National Capital New Play Festival, an annual event celebrating new work by some of the country’s leading playwrights and newer voices. One of its two fully staged premiere productions is Morgan Gould’s “Jennifer Who Is Leaving” (March 30 – May 7), a dark comedy inspired by both the playwright’s sassy gay grandfather and a world of women caretakers.

And at GALA Hispanic Theatre, out director José Zayas is staging Spanish playwright Alfredo Sanzol’s “La “Valentía/ Valor” (April 20 – May 14). Performed in Spanish with English surtitles, this finely constructed comedy tells the story Trini and Guada, two sisters battling over whether to sell their beloved family summer home that sits next to a bustling highway.

For Broadway at the National Theatre, spring means more music. First up is “Jagged Little Pill” (March 14-26), a Tony Award winning play with music by Alanis Morissette and book by Diablo Cody. Then it’s Lincoln Center’s glorious production of Lerner & Loewe’s beloved classic “My Fair Lady” (April 6-9), an instructive tale centering on Cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle who’s transformed into a proper posh lady by unfeeling linguistics professor Henry Higgins. The score includes standards like “I Could Have Danced All Night,” “The Rain in Spain,” “Wouldn’t it be Loverly,” and “On the Street Where You Live.”

At Atlas Performing Arts Center on H Street, N.E., Mosaic Theater is premiering Mona Mansour’s “Unseen” (March 30 – April 23), the story of an American conflict photographer who wakes up in her ex-girlfriend’s Istanbul apartment with no idea of how she got there. Kate Kleiger, Dina Soltan, and Emily Townley comprise the three-woman cast. Johanna Gruenhut directs.

For two nights only, the Strathmore in North Bethesda presents “A Simple Space” (April 26 and 27). Here’s the promo: “Witness seven acrobats pushed to their physical limits without reserve in a disarmingly intimate setting. Propelled by the driving sound of live percussion, this performance is simultaneously raw, frantic, and delicate.”

This spring at Lincoln Theatre, the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington D.C. pays tribute to two divas. First with “Whitney” (March 11 and12), a concert celebrating the best of Miss Houston’s music. Songs include “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” “How Will I Know,” “I Will Always Love You,” and “The Greatest Love of All.” And then it’s “Dolly” (June 3 and 4), a salute to the music of living legend Dolly Parton, featuring an exciting selection of hits including “Here You Come Again,” “Islands in the Stream,” “Jolene,” and “My Tennessee Mountain Home.”

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Gavin Creel relishing goofy fun of ‘Into the Woods’

Tony-winning gay actor plays two roles in touring production



Gavin Creel stars in ‘Into the Woods.’ (Photo by Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade)

‘Into the Woods’
Through March 19
Kennedy Center Opera House
$45 – $179.

For months, Gavin Creel has been making audiences laugh in director Lear deBessonet’s pared-down take on Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s deliciously dark musical fairytale “Into the Woods.”

Before moving to Broadway’s St. James Theatre in the summer of 2022, the production enjoyed a short run as part of New York City Center’s “Encores!” series. And now the hit show has embarked on a 10-city national tour currently kicking off at the Kennedy Center Opera House.

“It’s been a joy,” says Creel who plays both the lascivious Wolf and Cinderella’s Prince, two terrific scene-stealing roles that allow him to show off his gorgeous voice and considerable comedic muscle. The out actor adds, “This version puts Sondheim and Lapine’s work front and center without a lot of fuss and lets you bathe in the masterful storytelling.”

Among so many things he’s enjoying about the gig, Creel, 46, is particularly grateful that he’s been given the freedom to explore both parts, especially Cinderella’s Prince. A big challenge, he says, is to keep his comedy rooted in the real world without forgetting that the spoiled prince’s reality hovers above normalcy. After all, he is the canary yellow coat wearing, self-absorbed character known for saying ‘I was raised to be charming, not sincere.’”

By his own admission, the native of Findlay, Ohio turned New York-based Broadway star sometimes goes for laughs harder than planned: “Yeah, I’m having a little too much goofy fun in the first half of the play. I’m really enjoying the audience loving how funny it is.”

Twenty years ago, Creel made his Broadway debut as Jimmy in “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” a star turn that garnered him a Tony Award nomination. Subsequent musical successes include — among many — Clyde in the Broadway revival of “Hair,” comedic roles in “She Loves Me” and “The Book of Mormon,” and a Tony Award-winning performance as Cornelius Hackl in Broadway’s “Hello, Dolly!” starring Bette Midler in 2017.

“I do a lot of revivals and I always try to read them like they’re new scripts,” he says, explaining his knack for making familiar parts his own.

Typically busy, Creel recently finished an original theatrical piece entitled “Walk on Through: Confessions of a Museum Novice,” based on a commission from New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“It started as an assignment from a friend,” he explains. “Artists from various genres were invited to explore the museum and come up with something. My thing is I’d never been to the Met before, and as embarrassing and odd as that might sound, it’s true.”

The pandemic was not a joyful time for Creel. Grief caused him to literally lose his singing voice for a while, so he spent a lot time observing art instead. The Met became a safe haven. His new piece features 40 pieces of art projected throughout the show including Creel’s personal favorite “Smashed Strokes Hope” (1971), a dynamic contemporary painting by lesbian feminist artist Joan Snyder.

He’s excited to share a chunk of his new work in a concert at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater on Monday, March 13, a night off from playing in Sondheim’s fairytale, and looks forward to a possible full production in New York in the fall. That would give him time to schedule a quick Hawaiian respite after the tour ends in Los Angeles in late July.

Offstage, the University of Michigan grad strives to make a difference when he can. Creel is passionate about teaching. He was also a co-founder of Broadway Impact, the first and only grassroots organization to mobilize the nationwide theater community in support of marriage equality. But describing him as an activist makes Creel “a little itchy.” Cleve Jones and David Mixner are activists, not him, he says,

“When I was in my 30s doing ‘Hair’ on Broadway, I realized that I was enjoying a world built and paid for by people who came before me,” he says. “I wanted to be a part of that, so in an attempt to feel useful and involved, some of us organized rallies and encouraged others to write letters and taught them what state legislature is about. I think it helped.”

But politics is not where Creel’s greatest powers lie, he says. Instead, he mostly uses his energy to effect change in other ways, mostly through his work: “If we can laugh together and all agree that the prince in the yellow coat is pretty much an idiot, let’s see what else we agree on.”

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