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‘Velocity’ of D.C. theater

Sarah Marshall, The Beauty Queen of Leenane, theater, gay news, Washington Blade

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.

01
Jan
2014

Woolly’s ‘Bird’ leads in Hayes noms

On Monday night at the National Theatre, theatreWashington announced nominations for the 30th annual Helen Hayes Awards. D.C.’s equivalent to Broadway’s Tony Awards, the prestigious prizes are given to reward excellence in professional theater in the Washington area.

The Helen Hayes medallion. (Image courtesy theatreWashington)

The Helen Hayes medallion. (Image courtesy theatreWashington)

Gathered on the stage at the National, a cross section of the D.C. theater scene listened carefully as theatreWashington CEO and President Linda Levy read off a lengthy list of those nominated (more than 150 in 26 categories, selected by a pool of judges from 186 eligible productions that opened in 2013).

Raking in the most nominations was Woolly Mammoth’s “Stupid Fucking Bird,” a take on Anton Chekhov’s “The Seagull” written and directed by Aaron Posner. Surprisingly Studio Theatre’s excellent and equally audaciously named production “The Motherfucker with the Hat,” a dark comedy about addiction and fidelity by Stephen Adly Guirgis, was entirely shut out.

Round House’s “Glengarry Glen Ross” and Shakespeare Theatre Company’s “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” both garnered seven nominations. Six nominations went to “Hello, Dolly!” at Ford’s Theatre. “The Book of Mormon” at the Kennedy Center also earned six nominations, the most for any nonresidential production.  Signature Theatre’s musical “Gypsy” scored five nods including a nomination for director Joe Calarco, who is gay.

Out actor Brandon Uranowitz, who was terrific as Arnold, a drag queen who longs for love and family in Studio’s “Torch Song Trilogy,” deservedly received an outstanding lead actor nomination. Holly Twyford who is gay was nominated for her memorable turn as the manager from hell in Studio Theatre 2ndStage’s “Contractions.” Maurice Hines (also gay) was nominated for his choreography work in “Maurice Hines is Tappin’ Thru Life.” Outstanding director nominations went to Matthew Gardiner and Robert O’Hara for Ford’s “The Laramie Project” and Robert O’Hara’s “Mountaintop” at Arena respectively.

Disappointingly, out actor Stephen Spinella who played Estelle Parsons’ gay son in Arena Stage’s compelling “The Velocity of Autumn,” received no love. And neither did out director Michael Kahn for staging “Torch Song Trilogy” at Studio or “Pride in the Falls of Autry Mill” at Signature.

All winners will be announced at the annual Helen Hayes Awards ceremony on April 21 at the historic National Building Museum.  By giving the event more of a party atmosphere with longer open bar hours, reduced ticket prices and six big screens to see presentations taking place throughout the evening, theatreWashington is striving to bring the theater community and its supporters together in a more interactive way.

For a complete list of nominations and event details go to theatrewashington.org.

28
Jan
2014

‘Henry,’ ‘Hamlet’ and ‘Hair’

Olympia Dukakis, theater, gay news, Washington Blade

Actress Olympia Dukakis performs a reading of her one-woman show ‘Rose’ at the Strathmore March 13. (Photo courtesy Strathmore)

With so many new and familiar musicals, plays and performances busting out all over, spring is an especially busy time for D.C.-area theater. And many of the season’s hottest tickets are of special interest to LGBT audiences.

Signature Theatre is premiering a musical adaptation of “Beaches” (through March 30), based on the novel previously adapted for the big screen as the 1988 tearjerker starring Bette Miller and Barbara Hershey. Signature’s out artistic director Eric Schaeffer is staging the production. Broadway veterans Alysha Umphress and Mara Davi respectively play odd couple longtime friends Cee Cee and Bertie.

Also at Signature, out director Matthew Gardiner is staging a revival of the Berthold Brecht/Kurt Weill scathing musical critique of capitalism “Three Penny Opera” (April 22-June 1). The cast features Rick Hammerly (also gay) as scheming Lucy Brown, a part played memorably by Bea Arthur in the 1950s off-Broadway version.

WSC Avant Bard is currently presenting “Orlando” (thru March 23), playwright Sarah Ruhl’s adaptation of Virgnia Woolf’s 1928 novel about a man who becomes a woman. Talented local actor Sara Barker plays the title role. Amber Jackson directs.

The Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington presents “Von Trapped” (March 12-14). It’s a sure-to-be gay parody of “The sound of Music” featuring those familiar characters and beloved songs but with a twist. James Ellzy is the director/choreography.

Mark Twain Prize, gay news, Washington Blade

Lily Tomlin (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Comic icon Lily Tomlin comes to the Strathmore in Bethesda, Md., on March 28. In her live act, Tomlin, who recently married longtime partner Jane Wagner, uses her familiar roster of characters like Ernestine the telephone operator and precocious brat Edith Ann to hilariously comment on the human condition. Olympia Dukakis will perform a reading of her one-woman show “Rose,” which tells of a Jewish woman who has survived major events of the 20th century, at the Strathmore on March 13.

As part of its World Stages: International Theatre Festival, the Kennedy Center presents a staged reading of gay playwright Samuel D. Hunter’s “A Great Wilderness” on March 22, a story of an older man who has devoted his life to counseling teen boys not to be gay. About to retire, he takes one last client who forces him to confront his own demons.

The Keegan Theatre (located on Church Street, N.W., a half block walk from JR.’s Bar) presents “Hair” (March 15-April 12), the acclaimed ‘60s rock musical that celebrates youth, protest, free love, and, of course, hair. The show’s co-creators James Rado and Gerome Ragni shared an intimate relationship that inspired the show’s groundbreaking relaxed attitude toward sexuality.

The Shakespeare Theatre Company’s out artistic director Michael Kahn is staging both “Henry IV Part 1” (March 25-June 7) with Stacey Keach playing Falstaff, and the “Henry IV Part 2” (April 1-June 8) with local big talent Edward Gero in the title role.

Synetic Theatre is reviving its Helen Hayes Award-winning production of “Hamlet,” the first in its enormously successful Silent Shakespeare series, which relies on movement rather than words to tell the story. Out actor Alex Mills plays the gloomy Danish prince. It runs March 13-April 6.

Every April 12, parties are held throughout the world celebrating Russian Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin’s historic 1961 first manned space flight. D.C.’s “Countdown to Yuri’s Night” (C2YN) offers an artistic spin on this high-science holiday by combining an art exhibition, a space-themed burlesque show, band performances and a dance party. Entertainers include New York-based burlesque star Mr. Gorgeous and out performer Patrick Doneghy. This year’s venue is the spanking new Anacostia Arts Center.

In May, gay director John Waters brings his one-man show “This Filthy World” (May 16) to the Birchmere in Alexandria. For just one performance, the Baltimore-based film legend will share insights on his journey from trash genre cult favorite to bankable Hollywood director.

Gay playwright Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s “The Totalitarians” (June 2-29) makes its area premier in a production staged by out director Robert O’ Hara at Woolly Mammoth. Set against the backdrop of Nebraska-based political campaign, this high-energy farce pokes fun at the inanity of political language.

With “Jarman (all this maddening beauty),” force/collision pays tribute to Derek Jarman, the British avant-garde artist and filmmaker who died of an AIDS-related illness 20 years ago. A mash-up of video and live performance, “Jarman” is written by playwright Caridad Svich and will be directed and performed by the ensemble company’s out founding director John Moletress. First workshop performances are scheduled for April 17-27 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center.

Holly Twyford, celebrated local actor and now director who is gay, is staging Factory 449’sThe Amish Project” (April 17-May 11), playwright Jessica Dickey’s account of the tragic  Amish one-room schoolhouse shootings that took place in Nickel Mines, Pa., in 2006, and its effects on the community. The production will be mounted at the Anacostia Arts Center.

On April 21, it’s the annual Helen Hayes Awards, honoring outstanding work in professional local theater from 2013. The event will be held for the first time at the National Building Museum.

Over the last weekend in May, the D.C. Queer Theatre Festival marks its third annual celebration the underrepresented voices and diversity of queer artists. The festival features new plays with themes relevant to the D.C. area and local artists with roots in the community. It also aims to meld quality theater with activism and charity.

This spring, the Rainbow Theatre Project, D.C.’s new company committed to presenting LGBT-themed plays and musicals, continues its inaugural season with one night staged readings of  gay playwright Noel Coward’s “Long Island Sound (March 17), a comedy of bad manners featuring out actor Rick Hammerly; and “Yank!”(May 5), a musical about a gay romance during World War II to be staged by Hammerly, who must be among the hardest working local theater folks this spring.

07
Mar
2014

Atrocities forgiven

Nanna Ingvarsson, the Amish Project, gay news, Washington Blade

Nanna Ingvarsson plays many characters in the Holly Twyford-directed one-woman show ‘The Amish Project.’ (Photo by C. Stanley Photography; courtesy Factory 449)

‘The Amish Project’

Through May 11

Factory 449: a theatre collective

Anacostia Arts Center

1231 Good Hope Road, S.E.

$20

202-355-9449

Factory449.org

The Amish possess a ridiculous capacity for forgiveness. In a world rife with revenge and hate, their willingness to forgive comes off like an exoticism, almost impossible to grasp. In playwright Angela Dickey’s “The Amish Project,” the concept is thoughtfully explored against a backdrop of mass murder.

This compelling work is inspired by a real event — the shooting of five Amish girls in the Nickel Mines schoolhouse in Lancaster County, Pa., in 2006.  But in approaching the headline story, Dickey has fictionalized characters and fiddled with the facts. She’s upped the victim toll from five to 10. The result is a wondrous, often intense piece that deals with the crime and its ramifications, particularly how the outside world comes crashing into an insular Amish community whose wronged members forgive the man who killed their children and offer solace to his defensive widow.

Currently, Factory 449: a theatre collective is presenting “The Amish Project” in a compact, black box space at the vibrant Anacostia Arts Center. It’s a strikingly moving production and much of this has to do with the one-woman show’s sole cast member, Nanna Ingvarsson, who, under Holly Twyford’s adroit direction, gives a remarkable multi-character performance in which she plays seven parts.

Dressed in Amish girl garb (cotton blue dress, pinafore, bonnet, black tights and clunky shoe), Ingvarsson brings believability to each portrayal whether it’s a schoolgirl with crinkly eyes and a toothy grin or the gunman’s widow whose mouth is turned downward with anger and grief. Throughout 90 compelling minutes, Ingvarsson — without a costume change — seamlessly morphs into each of the finely drawn and very different characters. She even convincingly plays the killer, a milkman whose picturesque route included the country schoolhouse.

Like “The Laramie Project,” this work offers multiple perspectives. There’s Velda, the precocious, 6-year-old victim, who gives insight into the gentle ways of her Amish family and the simplicity of innocence. The character of middle-aged religion professor Bill North seems made to give specifics about the religious sect and its reluctance to adopt many conveniences of modern technology, but he’s more than that; North is an outsider with a special, firsthand connection to the Amish world and its forgiveness. There’s the embittered non-Amish farmer’s wife who can’t forgive; and then there’s the young but wise Hispanic grocery clerk for whom forgiveness comes naturally.

The gunman’s wife Carol is obsessed with skin products, hoping to erase the outward signs of grief and sadness with the latest anti-wrinkle cream. And while she is a bit wary of the Amish, those men with their beards, black hats and the horse and buggies, she is struck by the kindness they show her. At night she drives to the farmhouse belonging to the Amish family who lost two little girls in the shooting. From the road, Carol can see through the kitchen window. The father sits at the table, bent over, mourning his dead children.

Dickey’s writing is imbued with haunting imagery. Even the way the killer describes the splendor of “a flock” of Amish girls in the field by the schoolhouse, paints a striking image. Without minimizing the depravity of the crime, the playwright gets deep into the heads of all her characters, effectively threading a theme of humanity throughout her beautifully written work.

Out director Twyford has collaborated with a top-notch design team. Out Factory 449 member Greg Stevens’ set is spare and serviceable: horizontal slats, a chalk board that assists in storytelling, a suspended window and a corner of split rail fence. Newspapers are visible through the separated slats, suggesting the onslaught of intrusive outsiders. Lighting designer Joseph E. Walls alternately bathes Stevens’ set in dappled sunshine and moonlight, and harsher lighting for the big supermarket, houses with TVs and other manifestations of the non-Amish world.

01
May
2014

Stage presence

The Laramie Project, Ford's Theatre, theater, gay news, Washington Blade

The Laramie Project’ runs through Oct. 27 at Ford’s Theatre, part of a robust fall theater season in Washington. (Photo courtesy Ford’s)

This fall’s local theater offerings are a particularly promising blend of old and new, several of which have LGBT appeal. Here’s an overview.

Fifteen years after Matthew Shepard’s death, Ford’s Theatre (fordstheatre.org) is presenting an anniversary production of gay playwright Moisés Kaufman’s “The Laramie Project” (Sept. 27-Oct. 27). Kaufman’ powerfully affecting ensemble piece gives insight into the community’s response to the 1998 brutal murder of Shepard, a young gay man living in Laramie, Wyo. Matthew Gardiner (who is gay) directs. Local stalwart Holly Twyford (also gay) is in the cast.

Studio Theatre (studiotheatre.org) opens its season with the bittersweet comedy “Torch Song Trilogy” staged by Michael Kahn (Shakespeare Theatre Company’s gay artistic director) and starring the sensational Brandon Uranowitz as Arnold, a caustically funny drag queen who refuses to give up on his longings for love and commitment. Penned by gravelly voiced gay icon Harvey Fierstein (who created the show’s lead character Arnold on Broadway in 1981), “Torch Song” can feel a little dated around the edges, but its central issues of relationships, authenticity and family never go stale. The cast includes local actor Alex Mills, who is gay, as Arnold’s younger love interest.

At Rep Stage (repstage.org) in Columbia, Md., the season opens with Horton Foote’s “A Young Lady of Property” (Sept. 11-29), directed by Michael Stebbins, who’s gay. Set in a small Texas town, it deals with a young woman struggling to hold on to the house that her late mother left her. Following Foote’s sentimental drama is gay playwright Doug Wright’s powerful Pulitzer Prize winning “I am My Own Wife” (Oct. 30-Nov. 17), a compelling solo show about Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, a German transsexual who survives the Nazis and the East German secret police. Stebbins will swap out his director’s hat for an actor’s to play the demanding part of Charlotte.

Olney Theatre Center (olneytheatre.org) is presenting New York’s critically acclaimed BEDLAM Theatre in rotating repertory. Productions include Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” (through Oct. 20) and George Bernard Shaw’s “Saint Joan” (also through Oct. 20). Both directed by Eric Tucker.

After BEDLAM’s take on the classics, Olney’s gay artistic director Jason Loewith is staging Steven Dietz’s “Rancho Mirage” (Sept. 26-Oct. 20), a tale of three seemingly well-adjusted couples who at a dinner party decide to stop fronting and get honest. Dietz is best known for “Lonely Planet,” an intriguing exploration of the AIDS crisis as experienced by two gay men from within the confines of a quiet map shop set in an unnamed big city.

Taffety Punk Theatre Company (taffetypunk.com) presents the Riot Grrrls’ all-woman version of Shakespeare’s “Titus Andronicus” (Sept. 27-Oct. 26), featuring Isabelle Anderson in the title role.  Lisa Bruneau directs. In the past, the Riot Grrrls have successfully pulled off testosterone free takes on “Romeo and Juliet,” “Julius Caesar,” and more from the Bard’s canon. It’s the Grrrls’ credo that “a great actress can play a great role, regardless if it’s male or female.”

Longtime Washington favorite director John Vreeke is staging Round House Theatre’s (roundhousetheatre.org) area premiere production of “The Lyons” (Nov. 27-Dec. 22), a savagely funny family comedy by gay playwright Nicky Silver. At Woolly Mammoth (woollymammoth.net), Vreeke (who is gay) is also directing Lisa D’Amour’s “Detroit” (through Oct. 6), a comic takedown of the suburban dream. The cast of local favorites includes Emily Townley, Michael Willis, Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey, Tim Getman and Danny Gavigan.

Arena Stage (arenastage.org) opens its season with Eric Coble’s two-hander “Velocity of Autumn” (through Oct. 20) starring the great Estelle Parsons (“Bonnie and Clyde; she played gay on “Roseanne”) and gay actor Stephen Spinella who created the part of Prior Walter, a gay character with AIDS, in Tony Kushner’s seminal “Angels in America.” An intense 90 minutes, Coble’s play focuses on the relationship of a middle-aged son who returns to his mother’s home after a 20-year estrangement to help her deal with some potentially explosive old age issues.

Exciting things are happening at the National Theatre (thenationaldc.com). The season opens with the world premiere of “If/Then” (Nov. 11-Dec. 8), a romantic musical about a woman on the cusp of middle age, who returns to New York City where she deals with love and the unexpected. It stars Idina Menzel who famously created the part of the green witch Elphaba in Broadway’s “Wicked.”

“If/Then” reunites Menzel with Tom Kitt (music), Brian Yorkey (book and lyrics), and Michael Greif (director), the same creative team behind the Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning musical “Next to Normal.”

Oscar winning Christine Lahti comes to Signature Theatre (signature-theatre.org) to star in “Pride in the Falls of Autry Mills” (Oct. 15-Dec. 8), young playwright Paul Downs Collaizo’s new play about what lurks behind the pristine façade of a seemingly perfect suburban existence. Michael Kahn directs.

Signature’s gay artistic director Eric Schaeffer is staging Matt Conner’s new musical “Crossing” (Oct. 29-Nov. 24) in which characters from different decades throughout the last century come together and share their experiences in song. Conner, who is gay, is both an actor (he’s performed in many Signature musicals) as well as composer. In the past, Signature produced his musical “Nevermore,” a dreamy tribute to the works of Edgar Allen Poe.  In December, Signature is taking a crack at the legendary musical “Gypsy” (opens Dec. 17). Joe Calarco (who is gay) directs and Signature veteran Sherri L. Edelen plays the title character’s indomitable stage mother, Mama Rose.

Synetic Theater (synetic.org) kicks off its season in Crystal City with “The Portrait of Dorian Gray” (Sept. 26-Nov. 3), promising to put its inimitable movement-based stamp on Oscar Wilde’s classic novel. Included in the cast is Helen Hayes Award-winning gay actor Philip Fletcher who plays Gray’s actual portrait. Synetic’s celebrated adaptions are consistently innovative, accomplished and sexy.

12
Sep
2013

Staying on script

Edgar & Anabel, Maboud Ebrahimzadeh, Emily Kester, theater, gay news, Washington Blade

Maboud Ebrahimzadeh as Nick and Emily Kester as Marianne in ‘Edgar & Anabel.’ (Photo by Igor Dmitry; courtesy Studio)

‘Edgar & Annabel’
Through Jan. 5
Studio 2ndstage
1501 14th Street, N.W.
$15-$35
202-332-3300

Sure, lots of theater remains relevant over time, but typically a play doesn’t become increasingly topical in the years following its publication. Yet, that’s exactly what’s happened with young British dramatist Sam Holcroft’s “Edgar & Annabel.”

When her Orwellian comedy thriller premiered in London in 2011, the Edward Snowden N.S.A. leak hadn’t happened and western audiences felt removed from the notion of an oppressive government monitoring their every move. But today, for Studio 2ndStage’s post-Snowden audiences, it’s more relatable.

Holcroft imagines a contemporary-looking America where government surveillance is the norm. Big Brother is always listening and things are getting worse. People can be thrown into jail for telling an anti-government joke. Elections are approaching and the ruling party is predicted to win handily. Stakes are high. The minority, freedom-seeking opposition desperately needs to make some gains.

The plot turns on the relationship of young rebel operatives Marianne (the excellent Emily Kester) and Nick (Maboud Ebrahimzadeh) who stay under the radar disguised as conservative married professionals Edgar and Annabel. Like everywhere, the house where they live is bugged and what’s said is analyzed by a government computer. To maintain innocuous continuity, every afternoon Marianne and Nick are supplied a new script from Miller (Lisa Hodsoll), their cool-but-zealous handler. So evening after evening, they speak their banal domestic dialogue dutifully while anxiously awaiting orders from organization higher-ups on when to assemble the bombs whose makings are stashed beneath the floor boards of their white IKEA kitchen.

Acclaimed local actor Holly Twyford (who is gay) is new to directing, but you wouldn’t know it here. She has staged the production (a U.S. premiere) with a sure hand. At 95 minutes, the well-acted piece moves briskly without losing any of the comic bits or the more disturbing aspects of the play. The design team is assured too, from Debra Booth’s purposefully plain set to costume designer Kelsey Hunt’s pretty dresses and beige pumps for Annabel.

Living under constant aural surveillance can prove tricky, but the operatives learn ways around it. When assembling explosives, they use what’s available to drown out suspicious noises — an electric carving knife and the hand held vacuum work nicely. But for a really big job, it’s home karaoke. Most memorably, the couple engages is an evening of karaoke and bomb building with guests and fellow operatives Tara and Marc (Lauren E. Banks and Jacob Yeh). This longish scene is a tour de force of blocking (kudos Ms. Twyford) and concentration on the part of the talented and diverse cast.

What’s more, it’s during a karaoke duet (“Total Eclipse of the Heart”) that Marianne and Nick’s relationship noticeably begins to shift. I’ll stop there. No spoilers.

Holcroft’s play is about acting too. Because the protagonists must do a cold script reading every evening, there’s lots of opportunity for frustration and humor as they perform for the overhead government bugs hidden in the smoke detectors. Characters can be replaced without warning. Going off script is taboo. Sometimes props aren’t available — in one instance, their script calls for wine but they’re out, prompting Ebrahimzadeh’s Nick to impressively mimic the uncorking the bottle and pouring of its contents.

“Edgar & Annabel” kicks off Studio 2ndStage’s “British Invasion,” a showcase of notable plays by British playwrights under 40. Upcoming entrees include “Tribes” by Nina Rains and Mike Bartlett’s “Cock,” intriguing-sounding works to look forward to in the new year.

18
Dec
2013

Interrogating circumstances

‘Contractions’
Through Jan. 27
The Studio Theatre (Studio 2ndstage)
1501 14th Street, NW
$30-$35
202-332-3300
studiotheatre.org

Holly Twyford, Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan, Contractions, Studio Theatre, theater, gay news, Washington Blade

Holly Twyford (left) and Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan in ‘Contractions.’ (Photo by Scott Suchmann; courtesy of Studio Theatre)

With “Contractions,” British playwright Mike Bartlett takes the horrors of corporate servitude to the nth degree.

Now making its American premiere at Studio 2ndStage, Bartlett’s workplace satire is laugh-out-loud funny and menacingly dark at once. It unfolds through a series of increasingly uncomfortable meetings in which Emma (Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan), a newly hired sales professional at an unnamed corporation, is relentlessly and methodically questioned by a bizarrely inquisitive manager (Holly Twyford). Both clad in sleek black suits (pants for the manager and skirts for Emma) and super-high heels, the pair review employee regulations giving special attention to the sections pertaining to romantic and sexual relationships among employees.

Any suspicions that the manager’s obsessive inquiry into the most minute details of Emma’s sex life is driven by prurient interests or perhaps her lustful designs on the new, younger employee are rather quickly put to rest when it becomes abundantly clear that her every move — even the most perverse — are done to benefit the company’s bottom line.

More and more, the manager’s inquiries and directives grow ludicrously outrageous. Initially Emma is her superior’s match, but not for long. Volleys build into one-sided brutal attacks and it’s soon evident that Emma can’t compete with a company-backed opponent. After being frequently reminded about the sluggish job market and that there are more than a hundred applicants ready and willing to fill her corporate position, Emma surrenders to HR’s demands. She devolves from confident and sexy to broken and bereft. At one point, Emma asks the heartless boss if she bleeds. And while we never get that answer, we do become acquainted with some of Emma’s bodily fluids. And no wonder with the battering she goes through.

British director Duncan Macmillan ably helms the top-notch production and Twyford and Wilmoth Keegan both deliver knockout performances. With a frozen smile, glazed eyes and hilariously placed pauses, Twyford (who is gay) is at the top of her game as the corporate automaton. Wilmoth Keegan is equally terrific and wonderfully natural as Emma.

“Contractions” is not the first time Twyford and Wilmoth Keegan have successfully joined forces. In the fall of 2011, Wilmoth Keegan played the victim of a brutal gay bashing in “Stop Kiss,” Diane Son’s play about women friends turned lovers. The well-received No Rules Theatre Company production marked Twyford’s directorial debut.

Bartlett, the playwright, is best known for “Cock,” his hit play (in London and New York) about a happily partnered gay man who falls in love with a woman.

“Contractions” is set entirely in the manager’s stark office. Designed by Luciana Stecconi, it’s a minimalist’s wet dream: white walls, white floors, white light (compliments of Colin K. Bills), and two white office chairs positioned at opposite ends of a long, white conference table. Discreetly built-in cabinets contain scarily detailed personnel files. No clutter. No art. No signs of life at all really. It’s a sterile space, perfectly suited for surgically excising what makes an employee human.

10
Jan
2013

Helen Hayes noms announced

Helen Hayes Awards, theater, gay news, Washington Blade

The 2011 Helen Hayes Awards (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Winning awards isn’t important, some say. It’s the work that counts. That may be so, but nonetheless most everyone loves a good horse race and local theater professionals and their fans are no exception.

On Monday night at the National Theatre, theatreWashington announced nominations for the 29th annual Helen Hayes Awards. D.C.’s equivalent to Broadway’s Tony awards, the prestigious prizes are given to reward excellence in professional theater in the greater Washington area. And similar to years past, quite a few gay theater folks are among those nominated.

Gathered in the theater’s cozy Helen Hayes gallery, guests listened attentively as theatreWashington CEO and president Linda Levy read off a long list of nominees (more than 150 in 26 categories) selected by 41 judges from 201 eligible productions that ran throughout 2012. Garnering the most nominations for outstanding resident musical was Toby’s Dinner Theatre’s production of “The Color Purple” followed closely by Signature’s Theatre “Dreamgirls.” For outstanding resident play Woolly Mammoth’s “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity” (an exploration of wrestling and politics) and Folger Theatre’s wild west-set “The Taming of the Shrew” received the most nods.

Rather surprisingly, the movement-based Synetic Theatre that typically picks up heaps of nominations (and wins), received zero this time around.

Shakespeare Theater, gay news, Washington Blade

Michael Kahn (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Included among the many nominees were gay directors Michael Kahn (Shakespeare Theatre Company’s “The Government Inspector”), John Vreeke (Woolly Mammoth’s “Chad Deity”), Serge Seiden (MetroStage’s “Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris”), and Matthew Gardiner (Signature’s “Dreamgirls”). Talented gay musical director Jon Kalbfleisch was also nominated for his vital contributions to Signature’s “Dreamgirls.”

Nicholas Rodriguez, theater, actor, gay news, Washington Blade

Nicholas Rodriguez (Washington Blade photo by Pete Exis)

Gay actor Bobby Smith was nominated for both a lead (the title role in the musical revue “Jacques Brel,” and supporting performance (the sadistic dentist in Olney Theatre’s “Little Shop of Horrors”). Nicholas Rodriguez, also gay, was nominated for his supporting work Freddy Eynsford-Hill in Arena Stage’s “My Fair Lady.” Holly Twyford and Sarah Marshall are both gay and both nominated for supporting performances in Folger’s “Shrew.” Twyford was also nominated for her lead turn as the doomed Harper in Studio Theater’s “Dirt.”

The winner of the non-competitive John Aniello Award for Outstanding Emerging Theatre Company is Dizzy Miss Lizzie’s Roadside Review, a fun company that melds the classics, vaudeville and rock. The late Aniello was an avid Washington theatergoer as well as the longtime partner of theatreWashington’s chairman of the board Victor Shargai.

All winners will be announced at theatreWashington’s annual Helen Hayes Awards ceremony on April 8 at the Warner Theatre followed by a blowout after party just across the street at the J.W. Marriott Hotel.

For a complete list of nominations go to theatreWashington.org.

01
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2013