Connect with us

Theater

Gay actor went after role in ‘Angels in America’ like a bloodhound

Nick Westrate on the importance of remembering AIDS in the ‘80s

Published

on

Nick Westrate stars in ‘Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches.’ (Photo by Emil Cohen)

‘Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches’
Through April 23
Arena Stage
1101 Sixth St., S.W.
$56– $95
Arenastage.org

By playing Prior Walter in Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches” at Arena Stage, New York actor Nick Westrate is hitting a professional milestone. The part of Prior, a young gay New Yorker besieged by AIDS and abandonment, is a role he’s long wanted to do, and almost did several times, but somehow it never worked out until now with Arena’s staged-in-the-round production helmed by Hungarian director János Szász. 

Set in mid-80s New York City, the 1993 Pulitzer and Tony and Pulitzer-winning epic is an American tragedy tempered by humor. After Prior is diagnosed with AIDS, his partner Louis leaves him for Joe, an ex-Mormon conservative whose wife Harper is having a Valium-fueled nervous breakdown. Thrown into the mix are – among others—loathsome lawyer Roy Cohn (a vicious, closeted conservative who died of AIDS in 1986), the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, and an angel who appears to Prior and decrees his role as a prophet, a mantle Prior struggles with donning. 

For the out actor, saying the playwright’s words is both a thrill and responsibility: “Tony Kushner is the most remarkable living playwright we have. His words are poetry, and he makes poetry practical and the political personal. He’s second to none in that way.” 

Westrate grew up on a Christmas tree farm in southern Michigan. At 17, he left his home state for New York to study acting at the Juilliard School. After a busy but rough start, an eclectic and successful career ensued. 

His ample stage credits include originating roles for Harvey Fierstein’s “Casa Valentina” and Theresa Rebeck’s comedy “Bernhardt/Hamlet.” He toured in “The King’s Speech” as Bertie (the monarch who overcame a debilitating stutter to inspire a nation), played feckless young Leo in Ivo van Hove’s “The Little Foxes” and the depressed Donald in the 2010 off-Broadway revival of “The Boys in the Band.” On television, he was Robert Townsend for three seasons on AMC’s “Turn: Washington’s Spies,” and on film, he starred in William Sullivan’s “American Insurrection.”

When asked how the part of Prior came to him, Westrate replies without hesitation, “I sought after it like a bloodhound.” Short version is Westrate heard Szász was doing “Angels” at Arena. He liked his work but didn’t know how to contact him, so he reached out to an Eastern European contact who put them in touch. They met in New York in October and hit it off. After a few hours of reading sections of the play together, director and actor decided to join forces. 

“It was a fit, and I knew that Arena had the resources and integrity to do it well,” he adds.

WASHINGTON BLADE: You’re too young to remember the early days of AIDS. How do you tap into the terror? 

NICK WESTRATE: A lot of reading, things like Randy Shilts’ “And the Band Played On” and Paul Monette’s great memoir “Borrowed Time.” And the more you learn about people and how cases of the virus ravaged their bodies, the more terrifying it becomes. You can only take in so much at a time and luckily, I’ve had a long runway to prepare for this. 

Terror is also knowing the joy and liberation before the fall. How free gay life was becoming and how much fun everyone was having. If this had never happened, we’d be so much further along. We would have discovered 400 genders by now and wouldn’t have Ron DeSantis braying about it. AIDS was such a huge missile into the soul of our community.

BLADE: And the physicality of the role? Prior becomes increasingly ill throughout the play. 

WESTRATE: A lot of things. Again, there’s reading including media material and actual accounts – there’s a great book called “From A Burning House,” a nonliterary compilation of short letters from people living with the virus. There’s artistic preparation involving the movement director and costume and wig and makeup designers as well, and figuring out how to express all that. 

Also, I lost 30 pounds to play the part. Because of the long run up to the play, I was able to do it gradually. 

BLADE: Tell us about the cast. 

WESTRATE: Half the cast are queer people. It’s so amazing to do this play with gay people — the references and understanding is there. You don’t have to apologize; the kissing isn’t weird. There’s an almost immediate intimacy of doing this play together that’s very beautiful. 

I’ve worked with straight actors in gay plays who’ve asked “OK, why Judy Garland?” Or they tell me how they’ve researched to be gay. It’s borderline offensive. But when you’re with gorgeous queer people it just happens so naturally so easily. [Castmates] Billie Krishawn, Justin Weaks, Michael Kevin Darnall and I have such a shorthand with each other. We have a text chain and send it each other weird GIFs. It’s a lot of fun. 

BLADE: You had an auspicious meeting with János Szász in October. How’s working with him? 

WESTRATE: He’s a marvel. Not only does he direct without an agenda but he brings a unique perspective: János was driven out of Hungary by fascist leader Viktor Orbán for being Jewish and leftist. He and his wife and children are refugees in this country. An interesting viewpoint, especially at this time when refugees are streaming across borders in Europe, America, the Middle East, and Africa. 

BLADE: In this moment of trans and drag persecution do you think about that? 

WESTRATE: All the time. Prior and Belize [Prior’s best friend played by Justin Weaks] are former drag queens.

BLADE: Talk about the sand. 

WESTRATE: Yes, there’s a lot of sand [28,000 pounds of sand to fill a 30-foot diameter circle at six inches deep]. János was very moved and inspired by footage from “How to Survive a Plague” that shows people throwing the ashes of loved ones over the fence and on to the White House lawn. It’s important for János that we’re doing this play in the ashes of the dead. 

BLADE: For some gay theatergoers “Angels” is a tough show. They’re hesitant to revisit that time. 

WESTRATE: I understand if you don’t want to see it on a specific day but gird your loins and put on your grownup panties and come to the theater, it needs to be witnessed and attention must be paid. 

The crisis filled the tanks of the bigoted and the hateful and shifted us politically and personally in ways we still can’t fathom. And that’s why it’s so important why we’re doing this play and keep doing this play and never stop talking about it.

I have my aunts (gay men who’ve survived the crisis) coming to see the show, and I’m here for those who aren’t here. I get emotional just talking about it. It’s a huge responsibility that none of us are taking lightly.

BLADE: It’s timely?

WESTRATE: Not long ago we had a president who was barking “bring me my Roy Cohn.” Looking around America, you might wonder how the fuck did we get here. Why are we persecuting our most vulnerable people? Why are so many so greedy, specious, and blind? Come see this play. This is where so much of it started.

BLADE: Clearly it means a lot to you. 

WESTRATE: I’ve loved the play since I started to love plays. And I’ve seen many productions: the most recent Broadway version, Michael Greif’s on Broadway, Ivo van Hove’s at BAM. Mike Nichols’ film. Doing a full production is very important to me. 

I’ve worked with a lot of the great gay writers like Mart Crowley and Harvey Fierstein and Edmund White and now my friend Tony Kushner. It’s meaningful for me to do these pieces from not only the American theatrical canon but also the gay canon.

BLADE: Thanks for taking time. 

WESTRATE: Nothing makes me happier than talking about this play and this production. 

Advertisement
FUND LGBTQ JOURNALISM
SIGN UP FOR E-BLAST

Theater

‘Evita’s Return’ offers different take on Argentinian icon

Posthumous look at mummified first lady’s travels is not fiction

Published

on

Fran Tapia (front) Back L-R Facundo Agustin, Luis Obed Velazquez, Tsaitami Duchicela (back) Oscar A.Rodriguez, Rodolfo Santamarina, and Sofia Grosso. ( Photo by Stan Weinstein)

“Momea en el Clóset (Mummy in the Closet): Evita’s Return”
Through June 9
GALA Hispanic Theatre
3333 14th St., N.W.
$50
Galatheatre.org

Whether alive or dead, Eva Perón wielded her own brand of political power. After her death in 1952, Eva’s cult of mostly poor and working-class followers remained devoted to their Santa Evita. Her husband, Argentina’s president Juan Perón, fostered adulation by having her wasted body painstakingly embalmed, and displaying the waxen corpse like the incorruptible bodies of sainted Roman Catholic luminaries. But when the anti-Peronistas took power, they had other ideas; storing her away far from sight seemed a better idea.

Typically works about Argentina’s first lady focus on her unbridled ambition and ascent from anonymity to fame, but the strikingly original “Momea en el Clóset (Mummy in the Closet): Evita’s Return” — now at GALA Hispanic Theatre — is different. The collaboration of GALA’s producing artistic director Gustavo Ott (book and lyrics) and Mariano Vales (music and lyrics) spotlights the events following Eva’s death from cervical cancer at just 33.  

At the center of this entertaining madness is winning out actor Fran Tapia as Eva, a corpse sporting a ball gown and the trademark platinum blonde chignon, standing stiffly in a closet, more a mobile cabinet actually. In death, she realizes a silent dignity with flashes of an unyielding passion for social justice. 

The Chilean award-winning Tapia possesses a stunningly emotive voice, quickly evidenced in the show’s first number “Evita, Evita,” when near death Eva bravely addresses the needy crowd whom she endearingly calls her descamisados (the very poor). Simultaneously, the smug anti-Peronists — bourgeoisie and military types — sing “cancer is homeland,” “cancer is love.” They relish the idea of her dying and are counting the minutes to her imminent demise. 

So, the scene is set. Eva’s shabby posthumous story unfolds – performed in Spanish with eloquent English surtitles. Sprinkled with humor and poignant bits, it’s a dramedy, reflective of then and today. 

Unlike Eva’s “Rainbow Tour” of 1947 when Argentina’s newly minted first lady was introduced to Europe with mixed results, her death journey is an obscure low-rent, outing. She finds herself in a Milanese cemetery with some particularly pesky souls, each who apparently strode the earth in different centuries (all cleverly costumed by Becca Janney). 

For a time, she lands with an increasingly cynical Perón (stentorian-voiced Martín Ruiz) in Spanish exile. With him are new wife Isabel (Camila Taleisnik), portrayed as a reluctant and inept replacement for Evita, and scheming political cum spiritual adviser López (Diego Mariani).

As crazy as it sounds, GALA’s current offering isn’t a work of fiction. At the top of the show, it’s made perfectly clear that any resemblance to the truth is factual. Director Mariano Caligaris’ inventive, fearless staging along with Valeria Cossnu’s exhilarating choreography, make for exciting storytelling. 

Music inspired by Latin rhythms of samba, reggae, bachata, tango, tarantella, and waltz (by way of Bavaria) is directed by Walter “Bobby” McCoy and performed live by a fabulous unseen seven-person orchestra. 

Grisele Gonzalez’s serviceable, multi-tiered set design affords the various prerequisite balconies and perches. An upstage scrim is perfect for the projections (Hailey Laroe) of grimy actual footage from Eva’s funeral and subsequent violent skirmishes involving fascists against the people. 

The cast is uniformly terrific. They sing, dance, and act with equal skill, and whether playing protesters, clerical staff, or handsome Argentinian soldiers, they look the part. Most are required to interact with the cadaver in differing ways from timidly to less than respectfully. 

Making his GALA debut, wonderfully able Rodrigo Pedreira shows off his versatility as Dr. Ara, the man tasked with making the dead woman presentable for public consumption, as well as a general whose butch exterior is belied by the occasional mincing walk and longing looks directed at his cute aide-de-camp (Luis Obed Velázquez).

As she travels, mummified Eva says “And once again the moving begins. They move me through offices, basements, garages. They cover me, package me, label me, and off I go traveling again! We come from fascism and toward fascism we go.”

Alive or dead, Eva was never able to successfully crack Buenos Aires’ famously tough high society, but she found fans elsewhere. 

Over about 14 years as a displaced dead body and beyond, Tapia’s Eva embodies the spirit of Argentina’s millions, the common people. They return the dedication: Candles are lit. Prayers are offered. Intercession is sought. Life goes on, but Eva isn’t easily forgotten.

Continue Reading

Theater

Celebrating the 2024 Helen Hayes Awards nominees

38th annual event returns next week ‘building on last year’s success’

Published

on

Justin Weaks as Belize and Nick Westrate as Prior in ‘Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches’ at Arena Stage. (Photo by Margot Schulman)

2024 Helen Hayes Award
May 20, 2024
For tickets go to theatrewashington.org

It’s that time of year again when the DMV’s theater pros and those who love them getdolled up and show up to celebrate the best of last year’s work. 

On Monday (May 20), Theatre Washington’s Helen Hayes Awards marks its 38th year with a splashy ceremony at The Anthem on the District Wharf. With two parts, a non-rushed intermission, and a lively after party, the program is long but the format allows time to celebrate award recipients, enjoy the entertainment, and talk about some serious issues without racing to the end.

Co-directed by Will Gartshore and Raymond O. Caldwell, the show features four terrific hosts — out actor Tom Story, Felicia Curry, Maria Rizzo, and Rayanne Gonzales along with an ensemble of five singer/dancers (dubbed the Fab Five) peppering the show with some fun numbers. 

“We’re building on last year’s success,” says Amy Austin, Theatre Washington’s out president and CEO. “Again, dinner will be served during the show à la Golden Globes on the first floor for mostly nominees and their guests, and the second floor offers lots more affordable stadium seating.” 

Austin’s approach harks back to the sumptuous Helen Hayes Awards of yesteryear, which she cleverly remembers as the “ice sculpture age.” Ultimately, the goal is to create something fun, memorable, and meaningful: “It’s such a collaborative community and that’s why the Helen Hayes Awards are special; it’s a reunion of people who’ve worked together.” 

Still, the doling out of awards remains the focus of the long evening. And that leaves a lot of nominees waiting on tenterhooks to see just who will go home with prizes named for the legendary first lady of American theater, Miss Helen Hayes. 

The awards selection process is no simple task, she adds. Recognizing work from 151 eligible productions presented in the 2023 calendar year, nominations were made in 41 categories and grouped in “Helen” or “Hayes” cohorts, depending on the number of Equity members involved in the production with Hayes counting more. 

The nods are the result of 49 carefully vetted judges considering 2005 individual pieces of work, such as design, direction, choreography, performances, and more. Productions under consideration in 2023 included 44 musicals, 107 plays, and 36 world premieres.

As one of this year’s nominees, out actor Justin Weaks says he isn’t about beating the competition. He concedes it may sound cliché, but it’s a privilege simply to be nominated, especially with all the work done in the DMV. And certainly, with three wins and multiple nominations under his belt, he’s in a position to know. 

And now, he’s nominated for Outstanding Supporting Performer in a Play, for his notable turn as Belize/Mr. Lies in Arena Stage’s production of Tony Kushner’s seminal masterwork “Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches.”

For Weaks, a longtime D.C. actor who relocated to New York in 2021, the “Angels” experience was singular: “It’s one of those great, very American plays that remains relevant, and that it’s centered on the gay experience and HIV/ AIDS makes it especially impactful for the queer community.”

Often noted for creating roles in new plays, Weaks enjoyed being part of a piece that so many hands have touched since its premiere more than 30 years ago. He was thrilled to work with the production’s Hungarian director János Szász who, Weak says, approached the piece as a new work, treating it like fresh text.

And does Weaks have a speech prepared? 

“The morning of the awards, I’ll journal about my experience with ‘Angels,’ and if my name is called, I’ll get up and give an abbreviated version of what I wrote. But mostly for me, it’s a reunion, a chance to be cute, get dressed up and celebrate the work.” 

In the Outstanding Lighting Design category, Brooklyn-based Venus Gulbranson is nominated for Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company & The Wilma Theater’s “My Mama and the Full-scale Invasion”. It’s the proud and out Filipino designer’s second nomination (last year she received a nod for Monumental Theatre’s “tick, tick… BOOM!”). 

“Lighting design is underrated in the eye of theatergoers,” explains Gulbranson who earned her lighting stripes as an Arena Stage fellow. “Scenic and costume design are somehow more tangible to them; they don’t often realize that it’s lighting designers who navigate the mood of the story. 

“It’s a very empathetic skill, and a good designer can take you there emotionally.  When you’re tearing up watching a scene, the lighting has a lot to do with it. We also spend a lot of time making scenes transition smoothly,” she adds. 

“We half-jokingly say ‘a compliment to set design is a compliment to us.’ We are the reason there are beautiful colors on stage. Scenery is our canvas.” 

Other queer nominees include Bobby Smith (Studio Theatre’s “Fun House”), Billie Krishawn (Arena’s “Angels in America”), Miss Kitty (Spooky Action Theatre’s “Agreste”), Michael Urie (The Kennedy Center’s “Monty Python’s Spamalot”), costume designer Frank Labovitz (Constellation Theatre Company’s “The School for Lies”), director Jason Loewith and set designer Tony Cisek (Round House Theatre & Olney Theatre Center’s “Ink”), and most likely more.  

Both the Helen Hayes Awards’ choreographer and a nominee, David Singleton is up for Outstanding Choreography in a Musical for NextStop Theatre Company’s “Ride the Cyclone,” a wildly entertaining dark comedy.

“The show’s score is eclectic, so I could do a little bit of everything. I had to find anchor points for each number where I draw most inspiration, and go with it. I have a strong jazz background, both street and musical theater jazz, but I’m also really into tap and some ballet.”  

Singleton began performing professionally in “Dreamgirls” at Toby’s Dinner Theatre in 2017, but he hit his stride with “really fierce” choreography post pandemic. 

A dancer first, Singleton says his energies are divided into thirds: performer, choreographer, and drag queen (Tiara Missou, an “incredibly vain but kind queen” who’s regularly featured at D.C. bars Pitchers and Shakers). When Singleton was 18, he volunteered to work the Helen Hayes Awards. He recalls thinking “I’ll be part of this one day, for what exactly I’m not sure” and now he says, “I’m here and I feel honored.”  

And what about a prepared speech? “Oh, definitely. I’m a rambler.”  

Break legs nominees! 

A full list of award recipients will be available at theatrewashington.org on Tuesday, May 21.

Continue Reading

Theater

Miss Kitty tackles classical mythology in ‘Metamorphoses’

Folger production seen through the lens of the African diaspora

Published

on

Miss Kitty (Photo by Sarah Laughland Photography)

‘Metamorphoses’
May 7-June 16
Folger Theatre
201 East Capitol St., S.E.
$20-$84
Folger.edu

Miss Kitty’s words are thoughtful and measured, occasionally punctuated by flamboyant flourishes and uplifting proclamations. Her tried and tested tagline is “live in fierce not fear.” 

She describes herself as “AMAB (assigned male at birth), nonbinary, genderqueer, transfemme” as well as “chanteuse, noble blacktress, and dancer.” 

Currently, Miss Kitty is testing her talents in Mary Zimmerman’s “Metamorphoses” at Folger Theatre on Capitol Hill. 

At 90 minutes, “Metamorphoses,” is made up of interwoven vignettes from classical mythology including the tales of Midas and his daughter, Alcyone and Ceyx, and Eros and Psyche. 

“It’s all stories that relate to the human condition: the follies, the happiness, the love, the loss,” Miss Kitty explains. “And a thorough knowledge of mythology isn’t a requirement for enjoyment.” 

The language is contemporary and with its 11-person ensemble cast – comprised exclusively of Black or indigenous people of color – they’re adding their own spin to its present-day feel, she adds. 

In Zimmerman’s famously staged premiere production, the actors performed in and around a pool of water. At Folger, director Psalmayene 24 has ditched actual aquatics; instead, he suggests the element by introducing Water Nymph, a new character constructed around Miss Kitty. 

Water Nymph doesn’t speak, but she’s very visible from the opening number and throughout the play on stage and popping up in unexpected places around the venue. 

“It’s a lot of dancing; I haven’t danced the way Tony Thomas is choreographing me in a very long time. At 40, can she still make theater with just my body as her instrument?

The name “Miss Kitty” was born over a decade ago. 

Miss Kitty recalls, “She was still presenting as male and going by her dead name. Someone commented that with the wig she was wearing for a part, she looked like Eartha Kitt whom she deeply admires.”

Her penchant for illeism (referring to oneself in third person) isn’t without good reason. She explains, “It’s to reiterate that however she might look, she’s always there; and if you misgender, she will let you know.”

Initially, the moniker was a drag persona at Capital Pride or the occasional fabulous cabaret performance at a nightclub.

But as time passed, she realized that Miss Kitty was something she couldn’t take off. She had always been a part of her. 

“She’s helped me to grow and flourish; she’s given me the strength that I never would have had before. I’m so proud of myself for realizing that before it was too late.” 

Bringing Miss Kitty into her theatrical career presented some concerns. Would theater folks be open to the new her, especially those she’d worked with before? 

Not always, but she’s found new companies who’ve welcomed Miss Kitty with open arms including Avant Bard, Spooky Action Theater, and now Folger. 

Last fall, Miss Kitty appeared in Spooky Action’s Agreste (Drylands), a stunning queer story penned by gay Brazilian playwright Newton Moreno. 

After being invited to audition and reading the script, Miss Kitty was determined to be a part of the production. 

A work dealing with love and being trans, and transphobia, and how people can turn on a dime once they learn the truth about someone, resonated deeply with the actor. 

“The play speaks to the idea that if people just let people be who they are and love who they want to love we’d all be a lot happier,” she says. 

For her sublime efforts, Miss Kitty nabbed a Helen Hayes Award nomination in the Outstanding Lead Performer category (winner to be determined on Monday, May 20 during a ceremony at The Anthem). 

It’s her first time nominated and first time attending. She’s thrilled. 

Miss Kitty grew up in Oxen Hill, Md., and now lives near Washington Harbor. Her entry into performance was through music followed by high school plays. She graduated from Catholic University with a degree in music/concentration in musical theater, and from there dove directly into showbiz. 

Looking back, Miss Kitty says, “being a person of color AND queer can be a double whammy of difficulty. You have to live in light and do the things you’re afraid to do. That’s the game changer.” 

Presenting “Metamorphoses” through the lens of the African diaspora (the cast also includes Jon Hudson Odom and Billie Krishawn, among others) helps us to realize that every story can be universal, especially for marginalized people — South Asian, Native American, or fully queer perspectives, she says.  

“Having an all-Black ensemble opens all new worlds for everyone.”

Continue Reading
Advertisement
Advertisement

Sign Up for Weekly E-Blast

Follow Us @washblade

Advertisement

Popular