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‘POTUS’ a brash, ballsy farce performed by all-female cast

Arena production with Kelly McAndrew funny with political depth

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Kelly McAndrew in ‘POTUS’ at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater running through Nov. 12. (Photo by Kian McKellar)

‘POTUS: Or, Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive’
Through Nov. 12
Arena Stage
1101 Sixth St., S.W.
Washington, DC 20024
$115
Arenastage.org

In Arena Stage’s “POTUS,” out actor Kelly McAndrew plays Bernadette, the gay younger sister of the president of the United States. She’s also a convicted drug dealer in search of a pardon and apt to show up when and where she’s least wanted. 

Penned by Selina Fillinger, “POTUS” is a brash and ballsy farce performed by an all-female cast. In describing the action, McAndrew is careful not to include a single spoiler: It’s about seven women connected to the president in various ways, some more supportive than others, who find themselves together in the Oval Office, when a possibly deadly screwup kicks off a wild ride of events. 

McAndrew who lives in Astoria, Queens with her wife Erin, and two cats Bradley and Basil, has a history with Washington theater. In 2000, she played Annie Sullivan in “The Miracle Worker” at Arena.

“It was my first big job out of school and a fairytale experience,” she says. “It’s a great role, and the stakes of the play are so high because young Helen Keller may not learn language.”  

Also in 2000, she played Eleanor Bachman in Arena’s revival production of “The Great White Hope,” and the following year she garnered a Helen Hayes Award nomination for her performance in “Holiday” at Olney Theatre Center. 

WASHINGTON BLADE: Welcome back to D.C. It’s been a while. 

KELLY MCANDREW: It’s great to be back and to have 20 years on me and be so much more relaxed. First time I worked here I basically went from housing to the theater. I was so nervous that I’d be late or lost. Now I’m using Capital Bikeshare, checking out monuments, doing museums; I’m really enjoying the city. 

BLADE: Have you been in many plays both helmed and acted exclusively by women?

MCANDREW: A few times. It doesn’t happen a lot. But there’s definitely a freedom that comes with that. The rehearsal space becomes a feminist room where you’re not concerned about offending male ego. 

And my fellow cast members are amazing. [Naomi Jacobson, Megan Hill, Felicia Curry, Natalya Lynette Rathnam, Sarah-Anne Martinez, Yesenia Iglesias].

BLADE: Do you often play queer characters?

MCANDREW: Increasingly so, which is fantastic. New York actors Michael Urie and Ryan Spahn have done Pride Plays where they actively sought out gay actors to play gay characters. 

I’m femme presenting so people don’t always see me for queer parts because they have specific tropes in mind, but that’s changing. I know a lot of playwrights and some have crafted roles for me, which I consider a complete gift. 

BLADE: How did you get the part of Bernadette?

MCANDREW: I was lucky. My wife and I know the director, Margot Bordelon. 

Last year Margot cast me as Martha in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” at the Denver Center. We gelled as actor and director and formed an incredible instant bond. She’s a very actor driven director and of course I like that. 

So, when Bernadette came up, Margot messaged me that there was a part that I’d rock and that we’d have a good time. She sent me the script and I really liked it. It’s absolutely filthy. It begins and ends with the c-word. 

BLADE: What’s she like? 

MCANDREW: Bernadette arrives as an agent of chaos. She’s the last character to enter, page 30 of the first act to be precise. 

She’s been in prison. Her brother has agreed to pardon her. She shows up wearing an ankle monitor. She’s a drug dealer who sells to the White House staff. 

But she does have plans. In addition to getting a pardon, she’s trying to win back her former girlfriend, the White House press secretary, and possibly make a career change.  Bernadette says, “I’m trying to go legit and open a tattoo parlor. But it’s a tough economy because someone isn’t delivering on his tax plan.”  

BLADE:  You’re in Arena’s Fichlander space. Do you like performing in the round?

MCANDREW: It’s great and it’s a challenge. Farces are usually done in proscenium because of all the slamming doors and disappearing into the wings. But they’ve done things like adding freestanding glass door frames and a credenza that serves as a hiding place that works very well. 

As farce, “POTUS” is very funny. But there’s some political depth to this too, underlying and dark. You’ll see that it resonates, especially with Washington audiences. 

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Theater

Actor overcomes car accidents to thrive in ‘Beautiful’

Bobby Smith on the infectious happiness of Olney production

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Bobby Smith in ‘Beautiful.’ (Photo courtesy of Teresa Castracane Photography)

‘Beautiful: The Carole King Musical’
Through July 25
Olney Theatre Center
2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney, MD 20832
$31 -101
Olneytheatre.org

As Bobby Smith describes it, “not too long ago, some things tripped me up.”

In late 2023, the celebrated, out actor was involved in two very serious car accidents and suffered severe injuries. And then May brought the unexpected death of his beloved Vizsla hound Mabel, named for the heroine in Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Pirates of Penzance.”

So, for much of 2024, Smith had been spending time healing at his farmhouse in Ellicott City, Md. Until now. Currently, he’s back on the boards at Olney Theatre Center playing record producer Don Kirshner in “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical,” a fun juke box musical about the early career years of singer/songwriter King from her Brooklyn roots to writing hits from an office in Times Square with her lyricist husband Gerry Goffin and on to Los Angeles solo-stardom.

WASHINGTON BLADE: Hey Bobby, you’ve been through a lot since we last spoke.

BOBBY SMITH: It’s been a whole lot. I spent the last seven or eight months either at home or going to doctor visits.

BLADE: How is it being back on stage?

SMITH: To be honest, it’s like learning to walk again.

BLADE: And playing the famously deadpan Don Kirshner?

SMITH: It’s good. I don’t do an imitation. Instead, I’ve created a character who’s not over the top; otherwise, it would become the Don Kirshner show and we don’t want that.

But because there’s not a lot of drama with Carole King, she’s a really kind, nice person, Don serves as a sort of catalyst. He pushes the story forward. He prods Carole to write more songs, to try different things. He doesn’t like her boyfriend.  Don the character doesn’t sing much but he’s always barking at people.

BLADE: Sometimes you forget just how many familiar songs King wrote: “Take Good Care of My Baby,” “Up On the Roof,” and “Will You (Still) Love Me Tomorrow” for acts like the Shirelles and The Drifters. And later songs like “It’s Too Late,” “You’ve Got a Friend,” “(You Make Me Feel) Like a Natural Woman,” and of course “Beautiful.”  

SMITH: Yeah, it feels like she wrote every song known to mankind; the show tells you that, and we sing most of them.

BLADE: You experienced a highpoint during the rough times. In May, you won a Helen Hayes Award for playing Bruce, the complicated, manic depressive, closeted father in Studio’s production of Alison Bechdel’s “Fun Home.”

SMITH: I did, but unfortunately, I couldn’t make it to the ceremony.

Bruce is a sympathetic but difficult character. Ever since being born, people of a certain age, have had to fight our way into the struggle of being gay. It’s not so much a struggle anymore, or I should say not as much as it used to be, but now there are a whole lot more signposts that didn’t exist when I was growing up.

Over the years, people have randomly attacked me for not talking more about my sexuality. I’m not closeted but I don’t feel I have to tell everyone. I don’t share it with my land lady. I don’t need to say “I’m here and I’m queer. Here’s your rent.”

BLADE: You have been in show biz for decades now. What keeps you going?

SMITH: I’m not sure, sometimes I ask myself what was I thinking when I decided to be a professional actor? I feel like I’m making a bigger contribution teaching at Catholic University than I did my entire acting career.

Now that I’ve taken over the tap department, I’m full time at Catholic. I’m also teaching Acting the Text, Directing for Musical Theatre, and in the fall, I’ll add Musical Interpretation.

BLADE: In this summer of so many theatrical choices, why see “Beautiful”?

SMITH: Well, if you don’t already know Natalie Weiss who plays Carole, you should. She’s an amazing compelling, vocalist with one of the healthiest singing voices you’ll ever hear, no straining, perfect placement. 

Also, there’s nothing about “Beautiful” that’s going to make you feel bad, or put you in a place where you might think you need to talk to your therapist. That’s not going to happen. And it’s because Carole King is a positive human being; from an actor’s perspective, you feel great by the end of the show, and the audience gets that. The happiness is infectious.

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Theater

Capital Fringe connects emerging artists with curious audiences

Annual arts festival runs throughout July

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Dancer Wren Coleman in ‘Alone and Together.’ (Photo by Kylene Cleaver)

Capital Fringe
July 11-21
Capitalfringe.org

Throughout July, Capital Fringe, D.C.’s annual edgy performing arts festival, continues its mission of connecting emerging artists with curious audiences. Among this year’s promising lineup, there are works featuring the personal stories and viewpoints of queer performers and theater makers. 

Fringe is daring and experimental, and with tickets at just $15, it’s a bargain to see these mostly new works performed at easily reachable venues including two established spaces at DCJCC (1529 16th St., N.W.), and three stages, Delirium, Bliss, and Laughter, found in a sprawling former retail space at 1150 Connecticut Ave., N.W.   

Included in the offerings is Sharp Dance Company. Helmed by director Diane Sharp-Nachsin, the accomplished group presents “Alone and Together” (July 18-21) at DCJCC in Dupont.  

Sharp company member Wren Coleman, a transmasculine dancer and educator based in Philadelphia, describes the company as very LGBTQ friendly and notes that “Alone and Together” is comprised of five pieces with some of particular interest to queer people. 

“Awakenings,” choreographed by Kevin Ferguson, speaks about his experience coming out as Black gay man. Coleman says “the piece hits me very hard. It talks about the ways how those who’ve loved you your entire life might perceive you and the different stages you go through from the initial anxieties, to finding and expressing queer love. It’s truly a beautiful piece.” 

Sharp Dance Company is Coleman’s dance family. When he came out as both trans and gay, Colman was scared. He says, “because dance is very gendered, I was worried that I might land on the outskirts of the community that I love so very much, but that wasn’t the case. Diane [Sharp-Nachsin] welcomed me with open arms; she’s helped me with my training, and helped me transition from a female-born dancer to a male dancer who dances male roles. She’s been incredibly supportive.” 

At a little over an hour long, “Alone and Together” truly has something for everyone, says Coleman. The company brings together very dynamic, contemporary modern pieces, some more current than others, but all impactful and thought provoking. 

This year marks both the company and Coleman’s second consecutive year at Fringe. Last year, the company was singled out as “Best Dance.” 

“It was an absolutely lovely experience with great crowds, says Coleman. “Since then, some of those audience members have come to see our work in Philadelphia and North Carolina. We’re really grateful to the Washington community.” 

At the Bliss, Rodin Alcerro is directing his new play “Pondering About My Memories” (July 13-21), the story of a 30-year-old man who is remembering his first teenage same-sex crush. “It’s a dialogue a between the present and the past surrounding forbidden love,” Alcerro explains. 

Born and raised in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, Alcerro has lived in D.C. for five years. So far, his theatrical credits are mostly for acting (GALA, Synetic, 1st Stage), but more recently he’s been transitioning from acting to directing and playwriting: “Not long ago, I reached a point in my life where I felt playing a character wasn’t enough to say all the things I wanted to say; I needed to share my own stories, and tell what I feel is necessary to tell.” 

The play’s protagonist is portrayed by Alcerro’s real life partner Pablo Guillen opposite Joshua Cole Lucas as the crush. Alcerro and both actors have experience with acclaimed local movement-based company Synetic, an asset for Alcerro’s very physical play. 

While the two-hander plumbs present and past, it’s not entirely autobiographical: Alcerro says, “That’s the good thing about fiction; it’s a mix of fact and what’s imagined. My play comes from a personal place. The situation and character relate to me as a person but the fiction makes it more interesting, I think.” 

Other Fringe works with queer content include “How to Reinvent Yourself in 5 (not-so) easy steps,” written and performed by Gennie (G) Minzyk; Caitlin Frazier’s “Re: Writing,” a new play about the ethics of writing in which a young queer couple navigates the beginning of a relationship; and Steamworks Productions’ “Existential People,” a Jean-Paul Sartre inspired tale of three gay men (who also happen to be murderers and criminals) as they are led “over the River Styx” into Hades.

 For further details go to Capitalfringe.org

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Theater

An autistic, nonbinary, creative type takes center stage in new play

‘Tornado Tastes Like Aluminum Sting’ featured at W.Va. festival

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Playwright Harmon Dot Aut

Contemporary American Theater Festival
Through July 28
Shepherdstown, W.Va.
Catf.org

For their new uniquely titled play, “Tornado Tastes Like Aluminum Sting,” Harmon Dot Aut draws heavily from life. Like the playwright, the new work’s central character Chantal Buñuel, called CB for short, is an autistic, nonbinary creative with synesthesia, a condition that causes some people to experience more than one sense simultaneously (like tasting words for instance).

But how much of Harmon’s three hander, currently making its world premiere at the annual Contemporary American Theater Festival (CATF) at Shepherd University in historic, queer-friendly Shepherdstown, W.Va. (just a 90-minute drive from D.C.), is specifically autobiographical? 

Parts are imagined but location and circumstances are pretty exact, they explain via phone during a rehearsal break. The story unfolds in rural Kansas surrounded by relative poverty; the family doesn’t have much, but they’re loving. 

“Often when I see people depicted from rural areas who don’t have a lot of money, we’re invited to make fun of them. I wanted to make sure I created people who were smart, who fought hard, who loved hard. Who loved their child and had some grace.”

Throughout the 90-minute Oliver Butler-directed production, teenage CB (played by Jean Christian Barry) speaks to the audience in the intimate Studio 112, one of CATF’s smaller spaces, inviting theatergoers into their world, to experience their brain from the inside.   

“It’s not really structured like other plays,” says Harmon, “Chantal is a character you’ve never seen represented on stage before, a story artfully revealed through projections, lights, and live feed. 

“I wanted to give them a sense of self that’s very strong, non-wavering. An asset in less tolerant, rural Kansas. Chantal, who becomes a filmmaker, sees a lot of life through a camera lens. They’re a character who’s autistic and nonbinary but who also has agency, a spark and need to go forward.  I call it ‘the fuck you’ spark. No matter what happens you move forward.”

The Hudson Valley-based playwright wrote their first iteration of “Tornado Tastes Like Aluminum Sting” in 2008. Harmon says “It took a while for folks to get on board, to use the word neurodivergent. That was its genesis. I kept working on it. And now I’m here having it produced, which is fabulous.”

For the young, undiagnosed Harmon, playwriting came instinctively. As a kid they’d record music off the radio and things they’d made up on their Playskool recorder. Then they’d take the tape out and cut and splice and make their own recordings. 

“I was making plays but didn’t know it, trying to understand a world that was incomprehensible to me.”

Harmon studied acting at a small college in Kansas. After graduating, they bravely jumped on a bus and traveled the country. “That was my true education. I was constantly writing, and I did standup.” 

A recipient of a Visionary Playwright Award, and founding member of the notorious gay sketch comedy troupe, Hot Dish! they’re enjoying their time in charming Shepherdstown, an accepting enclave where Confederate banners give way to a sea of rainbows. 

Other CATF offerings include Mark St. Germain’s “The Happiest Man On Earth,” the true story of Holocaust survivor Eddie Jaku. 

Out playwright Donja R. Love’s “What Will Happen To All That Beauty?” is described as an epic work about Black people living with HIV/AIDS exploring “questions of legacy, family, and healing against the haunting landscape of the AIDS crisis of the 80s and its enduring impact.”

Paloma Nozicka’s “Enough To Let The Light In” is a smart, spooky play about “girlfriends Marc and Cynthia who spend an night celebrating a milestone, but over the course of the evening, their lives are irrevocably changed as buried secrets begin to emerge.”

Nozicka, an ardent queer ally based in L.A, says “For a while I’d wanted to write work reflective of queer friends who don’t get to play queer characters. And when they do, they feel it’s tokenism, and that the characters are less than nuanced,” 

She adds “Friends who’ve acted in the play tell me it’s the first time they’ve ever played a lesbian on stage and they’ve been acting twenty years. 

“I feel there should be more opportunities for people to be playing who are they are.”

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