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‘Velocity’ of D.C. theater

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Sarah Marshall in ‘The Beauty Queen of Leenane,’ one of several crackling family dramas produced in the Washington area this year. (Photo courtesy Round House)

The year in theater has been an intriguing blend of old and new.

Many works contained gay content or were written by gay playwrights and most productions benefited from the efforts of gay actors, directors and designers.

It’s also been a good year for the stirring family drama. The crop of memorable plays exploring dysfunctional relationships between parents and adult children was bigger and better than usual.

In the spring, Arena Stage presented the area premiere of gay playwright Jon Robin Baitz’s “Other Desert Cities,” a well-made play about an aging Republican power couple dealing with their liberal daughter’s soon-to-be-released tell-all autobiography. The production was compelling but uneven — the cast didn’t quite ring true as family.

Not the case with Arena’s “The Velocity of Autumn,” Eric Coble’s two-hander staged by Arena’s Molly Smith and beautifully acted by the enduringly vital Estelle Parsons as an elderly woman on the edge and Broadway vet Stephen Spinella as her estranged gay son who comes home to Brooklyn and saves the day. “Velocity” opens on Broadway in 2014 with Smith slated to direct the New York production (the local theater legend’s Broadway debut).

Round House Theatre explored family too with Bill Cain’s powerfully autobiographical “How to Write a New Book for the Bible.” In the touching drama, the playwright recounts many of the details of his 82-year-old mother’s death from liver cancer while also celebrating his life spent as the younger son in a mostly functional family. Out actor MaryBeth Wise gave a wonderfully nuanced performance as the practical and independent mother. The role called for her to age 40 years and she pulled it off brilliantly.

Round House’s family riff continued with Martin McDonagh’s “The Beauty Queen of Leenane,” the dark tale of an isolated old Irish woman and her adult daughter who engage in an ongoing game of control with disastrous consequences. Sarah Marshall, who is gay, gave an admirably layered performance as the mostly immobile, but fiendishly domineering mother. The reliably terrific Kimberly Gilbert played the emotionally dependent daughter. The company’s most recent offering was “The Lyons,” gay playwright Nicky Silvers’ evisceration of a middle class family. Marcus Kyd played the damaged gay son.

In 2013, Shakespeare Theatre Company Artistic Director Michael Kahn shared his skills with the competition, directing “Torch Song Trilogy” at Studio Theatre, and “Pride in the Falls of Autry Mill” at Signature Theatre in Shirlington. Both shows are family dramedies rife with gay content. In “Torch Song,” New York-based actor Brandon Uranowitz triumphed as Arnold, the sharp-tongued, big hearted drag queen hell-bent on creating a happy family. “Pride” (penned by Paul Downs Colaizzo) featured a terrific cast including Christine Lahti as an unhappy suburban perfectionist and Anthony Bowden as her angry college-age gay son. Both shows boasted finely drawn performances.

At Signature last winter, Joe Calarco staged a production of “Shakespeare’s R&J,” an acclaimed all-male prep school-set take on “Romeo and Juliet” that he wrote and premiered in New York in the late ‘90s. Signature’s four man cast included talented out actors Alex Mills and Jefferson Farber.

In August, Slovenia’s Mladinsko Theatre performed its production of out playwright Norman Allen’s solo drama “Nijinsky’s Last Dance” at Mead Theatre Lab at Flashpoint. Allen’s play about the tortured ballet dancer premiered in D.C. in the late ‘90s.

And 15 years after Matthew Shepard’s death, Ford’s Theatre presented an anniversary production of gay playwright Moisés Kaufman’s “The Laramie Project,” an affecting ensemble piece that gives insight into the community’s response to the 1998 brutal murder of Shepard, a young gay man living in Laramie, Wyo. The production (directed by Matthew Gardiner, who is gay) received roundly positive notices despite being plagued with venue issues due to the government shutdown (Ford’s Theatre is operated through a public-private partnership between Ford’s Theatre Society and the National Park Service).

Memorable 2013 musicals included a cracking national tour of gay composer Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes” starring triple threat Rachel York at the Kennedy Center; “Fela,” a tour of the energized musical bio of legendary Nigerian pop star and political activist Fela Kuti staged by gay choreographer and director Bill Cunningham at Shakespeare Theatre Company; a tight reworking of “Miss Saigon” at Signature; and Studio 2nd Stage’s “The Rocky Horror Show” with Mitchell Jarvis as Dr. Frank’N’Furter. Also of note was the Broadway-bound “If/Then,” an engaging production that revitalized the National Theatre with its buzz and star power (Idina Menzel, LaChanze and Anthony Rapp).

In 2013, some openly gay actors dug deep for accents. As the aforementioned scary old woman in “Beauty Queen,” Sarah Marshall successfully tried on a very thick Irish brogue. Out actor Will Gartshore adopted a sexy French accent to play a worldly doctor unwittingly entangled in the drama of a group of romantically challenged Americans in “This” at Roundhouse. And Rick Hammerly went British with a charming performance as jovial Fezziwig in Ford’s “A Christmas Carol,” a sterling production of the Dickens’ December standard. Jeffrey Johnson reprised the tones of old school New York society for the revival of his cabaret act “Edie Beale Live at Reno Sweeney” at the intimate Café L’Enfant in Adams Morgan.

Holly Twyford kicked off the year playing the boss from hell in Studio’s superb production of Mark Bartlett’s “Contractions.” A celebrated local actor, Twyford (who is gay) finishes 2013 back at Studio directing British playwright Sam Holcroft’s “Edgar and Annabel.”  Studio describes the play as “a dark and cheeky look at what the future might hold, featuring undercover agents, surveillance algorithms and explosive karaoke.” Not a bad way to close the year.


Ford’s tradition revisited

‘A Christmas Carol: A Ghost Story of Christmas’
Through Dec. 30
Ford’s Theatre
511 10th Street, NW

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Edward Gero as Scrooge and Anne Stone as the Ghost of Christmas Present in the Ford Theatre production of ‘A Christmas Carol.’ (Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Ford’s Theatre)

Not yet in the holiday spirit? Then make a beeline to Ford’s Theatre for a jolt of yuletide cheer.

Ford’s has been presenting Charles Dickens’ Christmas classic since 1979, but for the last several years it’s been retelling the Scrooge story with an especially entertaining and timely adaptation by Michael Wilson titled “A Christmas Carol: A Ghost Story of Christmas.”

Adeptly staged by gay director Michael Baron, this version is spookier than previous productions with its haunted house effects (spinning bed, talking portrait, booming thunderclaps and flashes of lighting); but it’s also merrier. The show begins with happy 19th century Londoners ambling through the historic theater, welcoming audience members. Baron has also added song and dance including familiar carols like “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” “O Christmas Tree” and “O Come, All Ye Faithful.” And the holiday bash at the Fezziwigs’ (a pleasant memory from Scrooge’s youth) is a lively dance number led by a terrific Rick Hammerly as the jolly host.

But the heart of this “A Christmas Carol” is Edward Gero’s marvelous portrayal of that formidable miser whose icy heart is melted after nocturnal visitors open his eyes to the joys of the season. His Scrooge’s gradual transformation from miserable misanthrope to generous, joyous uncle, feels wholly believable.

As the kindly and elegant Ghost of Christmas Past, Felcia Curry floats above the stage, the dazzling incarnation of a sparkly little marionette seen earlier in the London marketplace. Other ghosts include James Konicek as Scrooge’s long dead friend and business partner Jacob Marley, Jane Stone as the saucy and straight shooting Ghost of Christmas Present and a floating silent specter (Curry again) as the terrifying Ghost of Christmas future.

Set designer Lee Savage supplies a soaring Victorian iron structure inspired by London’s Convent Garden marketplace and dominated by an imposing clock that portentously marks the comings and goings of Scrooge’s ghostly visitors. Alejo Vietti expertly costumes the cast in period top hats, bonnets, hoop skirts and night shirts — all that we’ve come to associate with strolling carolers and late night Christmas tales.

Wilson’s script is relevantly witty, sometimes a little darkly so: When raising a glass, old Scrooge makes a toast to “a quick foreclosure.” Ouch. Wilson also includes some nice glimpses into the modest life of Scrooge’s clerk, Bob Cratchit, and his wife nicely played by John Lescault and Amy McWilliams respectively.

Other standouts in a fine cast comprised of many local actors include the fetching Helen Hedman who plays both gracious Mrs. Fezziwig and Scrooge’s wily housekeeper Mrs. Dilber; Tom Story as Scrooge’s good-humored nephew; and Gregory Maheu as the eager but slightly awkward young bachelor Topper. The cast’s children sing sweetly and give very natural performances. Holden Browne and Sam Ellis rotate the role of Tiny Tim.

Though Dickens’ Christmas story is old, its message and Ford’s production feel anything but.