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Photo: www.studiotheatre.org

Queen of Basel’s Playwright Discusses Adaptation and Influences

Any time a contemporary artist decides to tackle and untangle a literary classic, the task is often monumental. However, when said artist then decides to mix and mold the already established characters into representations of the modern world, an adaptation is in the midst.

Critically acclaimed Hilary Bettis not only took hold of the characters and story from August Strindberg’s 1889 novel Miss Julie, but completely flipped it on itself. In an effort to provoke thoughts from diverse audiences, Bettis adapted the story from the troublesome Strindberg into the play Queen of Basel.

The play charges head first, focusing on societal aspects of power, race and class. Performances of the play are now in their last week at Studio Theatre, and before the Queen’s run ends, we spoke with the passionate Bettis about adapting the story, her process and the influences she draws from.

On Tap: How did you select Miami as the backdrop for this modern take on a classic play?
Hilary Bettis: Queen of Basel was originally commissioned by Michel Hausmann at Miami New Drama, with the goal of taking a familiar classic text and reimagining it specifically for a diverse Miami audience. So the backdrop was part of the assignment. Most of America likes to brush poverty under the rug – we don’t like to look at it. We live in gated communities or “gentrifying” neighborhoods, trying to separate ourselves as much as possible, but in Miami it’s so in your face. You literally have homeless encampments across the street from million-dollar condos. After spending time in the city, Miami felt like the perfect setting to explore a modern-day take on a play about wealth, class and power in 2019 America.

OT: What was most difficult when creating Queen of Basel?
HB: [August] Strindberg. Full stop. Aside from the original Miss Julie written as a total fever dream with messy internal logic and structure, which made trying to build a plot complicated, I fundamentally disagree with Strindberg’s view of humanity. He viewed women through the Madonna-whore lens. He believed “white” male sexuality is the epitome of strength. In his author’s preface Strindberg says, “Miss Julie is a modern character. Not that the man-hating half-woman has not existed in all ages but because now that she has been discovered, she has come out in the open to make herself heard.” And, “Jean is superior to Miss Julie because he is a man. Sexually, he is an aristocrat because of his masculine strength.” And, in his reference to Kristine (who he calls the “female slave”), “if my minor characters seem abstract, it is because ordinary people are abstract in their occupations.”

I believe ordinary people are unique, complicated and deserving of dignity. I believe sexuality female or male – doesn’t define the character or value of a human being. I believe men are capable of vulnerability and gentleness. I believe women are capable of strength and intellectual ideas. I believe people are equal in their flaws, their need for intimacy and love, their desire to be seen and valued. I believe choice comes out of circumstances. If we can understand the reality of a person’s life, we can find empathy – especially in the darkness.

OT: What will audiences discover or re-contemplate about race and power through Queen of Basel?
HB: The responses to the play have been utterly fascinating. People either love it or don’t know how to process it. The play really digs into the fluidity and messiness and ambiguity of privilege. All of these characters have power in some ways and are oppressed in other ways. They’re all victims and perpetrators. The play is designed to make an audience uncomfortable. My hope is that discomfort sparks conversation.

OT: Why the Latinx influence?
HB: I’m Latinx – my mother is Chicana – so everything I write tends to be through that lens. I was commissioned to write a bilingual adaptation for a Miami audience – so embracing Cuban, Venezuelan, Haitian [and] Colombian communities felt necessary. I also think America tends to think of Latinx as a monolithic culture; that couldn’t be further from the truth. Imperialism, slavery, Jewish people fleeing Hitler, genocide against natives, dictators, death squads funded by the U.S. and the empires built on that heritage – also plagues much of Latin America. I wanted an audience to see the nuance and diversity of communities within Latinidad.

OT: How did you and José Zayas get connected and how has it been working with him on this project?
HB: José is my theater soulmate. We’ve know of each other for a few years now, always wanting to work together, but the timing was never right. We finally got to work together at the Alley Theatre’s All New Festival last January on this play. We connected and got each other right away. He understands my voice and what I’m really after in my work and he challenges me to dig deeper, he never lets me settle. He’s really an actor’s director who knows how to make everyone feel empowered.

OT: What did you learn or discover during your creative process?
HB: So, so, so much, I was literally rewriting up until opening. This play is an actor’s play – three people in a room for 75 minutes bearing their souls and flaws and vulnerabilities – I really wanted the cast to have a point of view and a voice in our entire process. We had a lot of conversations about power, gender, race [and] how we navigate that onstage. How we portray these people with empathy, while remaining honest about their flaws.

But what’s fascinating is how Julie’s wealth sort of erases everything else about her. Audience’s are much more likely to forgive John and Christine than Julie, even though Julie is in just as much pain and turmoil.

OT: How has the current immigration conflict impacted your storytelling in Queen of Basel?HB: Immigration is something I write about in almost all of my work. The history of America is the history of immigration, and each generation has its immigrant story. Because I set out to write for a Miami audience, understanding the conflict in Venezuela, Castro’s Cuba and Baby Doc’s Haiti were vital to understanding the very fabric of Miami. Michel Hausmann, who commissioned this, is a Venezuelan ex-pat who fled the country after his theater was tear-gassed by [Hugo] Chavez. His family were Jewish refugees fleeing their homeland. The cycles of oppression, how we wield it in small and large ways, is the spine of this play.

OT: Aside from Strindberg, where else did you draw inspiration for this story?
HB: Certainly my own life. I’m mixed, white and Mexican, so I often struggle with where I fit in the world. All three characters are juggling multiple identities, so that part is very visceral and personal. And I’m a woman, so misogyny is personal. All of my collaborators have inspired me.

Queen of Basel is showing at the Studio Theatre through April 7.  Tickets are $20-$97, and available here.

Studio Theatre: 1501 14th St. NW, DC; 202-332-3300; www.studiotheatre.org

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Photo: Francisco Campos-Lopez

A Q&A With Washington Performing Art’s Jenny Bilfield On The Portals Of Art and More

Jenny Bilfield was once told to work as a receptionist and luckily for the DC area, she ignored this request. Instead, the President and CEO of Washington Performing Arts listened to the impactful women in her life telling her to be ambitious, develop a powerful work ethic and to channel her experiences along the way.

At the helm of the local art organization, Bilfield has steered toward community and education programs, ensuring people receive the same inspiration and motivation as she did in her formative years. We talked to Bilfield about her love for all things art, her trials and tribulations in the professional world and why it’s important for young people.

On Tap: How did you get your start in the arts?
Jenny Bilfield: I started playing the piano by ear when I was three, and composing when I was 10. I was the only person in my family with artistic ability, but my mother loved the arts, especially contemporary art, music, theater and so we attended everything. I’m sure my very early exposure and encouragement conditioned me to be open to a variety of art forms, sounds [and] environments.

OT: Why is art important to you and when did you know you wanted to have a career in the field?
JB: For me, the arts provide portals to history, emotion, experience, human understanding; they enlighten, engage, inspire [and] educate. I have learned so much through the work of great artists. Artists have an arsenal of tools to synthesize and express the complexity and beauty of our world in ways that engage the heart and mind, afresh. I knew that I wanted to pursue a career in the arts from the time I was pretty young – I decided when I was around 17 or 18, that I preferred making music happen (promoting and programming it) more than I liked the solitary confinement of a practice room. An internship coordinating a Beethoven Festival on Long Island one summer, clinched it for me.

OT: What are some of the biggest challenges you faced in your career and how did you overcome them?
JB: I started working in 1985 in New York City – 20 years old, right out of college. I encountered a number of challenges early on: the assumption, from prospective employers (male) that I was going to work only until I met a man and got married. In addition, I was told I needed to choose a path, marketing, fundraising, PR, programming, etc., and that my desire to lead or run an organization was both unrealistic and hasty; organizational leadership wasn’t a track, they insisted. It took me a few years to actually run an organization, but I did have very interesting roles before I got to that point: coordinating special projects and programs for Merkin Concert Hall, working as Philip Glass’s assistant, etc. Several organizations I worked for early on weren’t especially large or stable, but I learned by doing and took some pretty important risks in order to develop my leadership chops and operational capacity across all areas of management and programming. I also developed a strong stomach for the organizational volatility that comes with working for a small institution.

OT: What are you most proud of achieving in your career? How do you set goals, and what are some that you’re working on now?
JB: A great question and opportunity to walk down memory lane! I am proud of the expansive work I’ve done on behalf of living composers – founding the New Music Orchestral Project and bringing 40 new works to life through performances and reading sessions; my leadership role at Boosey & Hawkes during, which I developed composer-focused initiatives and catalog acquisitions, partnerships that measurably grew our composers’ profiles, work and opportunities globally (and our overall catalog) while generating new revenue for the company to currently at Washington Performing Arts, developing programs (connecting mainstage, community-engagement and educational) that have provided artists with transformative platforms for their most special projects and facilitated deeper connections with audiences. I do this alongside a great team and with strong board support, and find it incredibly powerful to curate programs in DC, drawing upon the cultural resources and partnerships in this city. Those partnerships have enabled us to shine a spotlight on key themes and moments in American history – something we are aiming to do more of.

OT: What advice would you give to women pursuing careers in the arts?
JB: Personal advice: as you consider a life partner, be sure that the person you’re with is fully invested in your career and your success [because] this field requires a high level of work, life integration and if you’re on a leadership path there will be many demands placed upon your time. Professional advice: develop quantitative skills and be comfortable with data and numbers, even if you don’t expect to be a CFO or Marketing/Development Director. If invited to join a board, join the finance or governance committee; if you have experience in this area, you will be steps ahead of your peers whether you oversee programming, education or operations.

OT: Did you get any advice from someone when you were first beginning your journey?
JB: From two men – advice to work as a receptionist at an organization for several years and then apply for another entry level job within the organization; I did not take this advice. From several women: be ambitious, prepared, develop a good work ethic and use my experience.  This advice, I did take. I had quite a number of anti-role models, and quite a number of true role models. It’s important to meet and speak with a lot of people to see, hear what resonates.

OT: How is Washington Performing Arts working to empower women in the workplace and on the stage?  
JB: Our leadership team is 50 percent women (we have many on the wider staff, in fact), with a similar proportion on our board and junior board. We have a dynamic women’s committee too – and some of the most well-established, respected women in our field got their early start on the staff of Washington Performing Arts. On stage, we seek to foreground talent across many musical genres and styles and have found ample opportunities to highlight women – as performers, curators, composers, artists in residence.

OT: Why do you think arts education is important in schools?
JB: First and foremost, because I think arts exposure and participation enables us to access what is ambiguous, personal and very human in ourselves. The reason it’s important to have arts education within the schools (versus only as an extracurricular) is that when it’s included during the school day – as part of the curriculum – it becomes an educational priority, on par with other subjects. Whether its value is measured by social and emotional development of our children or by improvement in behavior or math skills, the arts can have a powerful impact.

OT: What excites you most in the DC arts scene right now?
JB: I really like my colleagues who are leading peer institutions and have found an abundance of creative, collaborative opportunities. Many of our institutions are committed to new work, arts education, and to forging meaningful relationships with community-based artists and organizations – social responsibility alongside a commitment to artistic excellence. So, it’s an interesting time to be in Washington as both artist and audience member.

For more information about Bilfield or Washington Performing Arts, visit www.washingtonperformingarts.com.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Photo: https://keegantheatre.com

Hands On A Hardbody Depicts Struggle For Opportunity

Many catalysts that preclude the American Dream are found in education, employment or on a lottery ticket. In Keegan Theatre’s musical Hands on a Hardbody, 10 Texans vie for a cherry-red Nissan Hardbody, the physical manifestation of the dream and a chance to ascend America’s social and economic ladders.

The rural Longview, Texas provides a unique backdrop of this contemporary play as the 10 characters are forced to outlast one another by keeping a hand on the truck, with the last person standing receiving the coveted keys. Deriving from the 1998 documentary of the same name, co-directors Elena Velasco and Mark A. Rhea rise to the occasion, as their rendition of Doug Wright’s fictional story facilitates essential discourse on the American plight.

“Economical struggles don’t know race, necessarily. But they are impacted by race. It maybe doesn’t know ethnicity, but it is impacted by ethnicity. It doesn’t necessarily know gender or your relationship status, but it’s all affecting it,” Velasco suggests.

Most Americans have experienced the thrill and endorphin spikes associated with winning games or conquering competition. Perhaps you recall losing yourself in the midst of some effort to come out on top, to triumph. The phrase “every man for themselves” is a relatable American trope.

“Being able to rise and make a living wage, have a family and be valued as a citizen, all these things come out in this musical and the documentary,” she says.

As audiences explore a variety of conditions lived by those on the broad spectrum of American identity in the play, a diversity of themes are depicted. With each dance number and tune sung, a layer of understanding is creatively drawn, revealing cultural weaknesses and vulnerabilities.

“Mike is a Texan at heart, that’s where he grew up,” Velasco conveys, explaining the appeal in producing Hands on a Hardbody. “I wanted to see what Mike felt was compelling. I latched on to this notion that it was a representation of America. [At least] that’s how it was promoted by the original creative team, ‘An All American Musical.’”

In the original production by California’s La Jolla Playhouse in 2012, the cast was predominately white.

“When I looked at it and I thought about some of the character descriptions, I recognized it as an opportunity to really reach in and try to represent what America is to me,” Velasco says. “[I wanted to] try to reach out and find the diversity that we have here and how there are many voices that aren’t necessarily represented in the original casting, but could be represented in this production.”

Capturing the diversity of America was fundamental to the relevancy factor in bringing this production to the DC.

“It needed to speak to a DC audience, as well as reflect what Texan roots are,” Velasco continues.“[Fortunately], what it means to be a Texan is reinforced in the songs.”

In the ballad, “If I Had This Truck,” the truck’s significance in Texas culture is outlined, but so is the overt reference to the importance of opportunity.

“When listening to the lyrics, outsiders wouldn’t know what this means, but a truck is access to things. It’s an opportunity to get a job, start a business. Driving behind that [truck] makes you more economically successful. When you start to examine what this [truck] means to a particular community, you almost realize that this [competition] is a voyeuristic act that exploits people who are quite desperate, and down on their luck.”

Having directed more than two dozen plays and musicals over 20 years, Velasco rebukes the notion of having perfected her craft.

“I hate to think that I’ve ever conquered a challenge because it would make me think that I’m done with my work and I don’t think I’m done yet.”

Hands on a Hardbody is showing at Keegan Theatre through April 6. Tickets $52-$62. To purchase tickets visit the Keegan Theatre ticket portal.

Keegan Theatre: 1742 Church St. NW, DC; 202-265-3767; www.keegantheatre.com

Photo: Courtesy of Shakespeare Theatre Company

Inside Richard the Third’s Doom Rock Inspired Soundtrack

Shakespeare and doom rock are not two things one would associate. But in the world of Shakespeare Theatre Company‘s Richard the Third the two are intrinsically linked, thanks to composer Lindsay Jones. A lifelong lover of music, Jones has been playing since he was a teen and is entirely self taught. While working as an actor in Chicago, he began scoring plays as a side gig. Combined with his passion for music, it quickly became a legitimate career that’s seen him score a host of successful productions throughout the country. Now,  25 years into his career crafting innovative compositions for theatre, Jones lent his talent – and love for doom rock, punk and metal – to the score of STC’s dark performance.

OT: How did you come to work with Shakespeare Theatre Company on this play?
Lindsay Jones: When I first sat down with [artistic director] David Muse, he told me he wanted [the score] to be punk rock. I’ll be honest, I’m a huge fan of punk rock, but I never get asked to make punk rock. There just aren’t a lot of theatres in America looking for punk rock soundtracks. As he described it to me, he said he wanted it to start out very punk and full of energy, but as the play went on, to get distorted and ugly and dirty.

OT: How did you or the others involved in the play decide to approach the score using doom rock?
LJ: I started thinking of using doom rock, which is slow, and dirge-y but still super distorted – the soundtrack of your nightmares, basically. I wanted to start with punk rock [that became] doom rock as it went along. But it occurred to me that in the structure of Richard the Third, in the beginning of the play Richard says, “I’m planning this takeover, I’m going to slowly methodically knock out all of my enemies til’ I get to be king.” There’s not a lot of fast stuff in there. Once Richard is king, everything starts falling apart and becoming more frantic and crazy. Halfway through I realized I was doing this in reverse – it should start slower and speed up as it goes, so that’s what we did.

OT: What other elements played into the score’s composition?|
LJ: As I was walking out of David’s office after our initial meeting, he told me he had this other idea for the actors to be playing body percussion along with the music. I didn’t know how that was going to play itself out. They hired an amazing movement choreographer named Stephanie Paul, who in rehearsal worked with the actors to create complex sequences where they’re playing on their bodies with knives and sticks – all sorts of things. They’re pounding out complicated rhythms while sequences are happening. So I would watch videos of the actors doing these movement sequences, figure out what the BPM was and then create music that fit.

OT: That’s an incredibly unique element – and incredibly challenging to work with, I can imagine!
LJ: Rock music doesn’t usually have a lot of space for additional percussion. The whole idea is it’s super loud and regressive. The first challenge was just fitting everything in. We ended up [putting microphones on] the stage and performers, so I could pick up [the percussion] and amplify it to the same volume level as the recorded music.

The other challenge, which probably took us the longest time to sort out, is that these actors worked for several weeks creating percussion sequences and got pretty good at it, but they weren’t initially trying to perform these sequences along to anything else [like music].  As soon as I show up with recorded music at a certain tempo every time no matter what – it was a lot of telling them to start at a certain beat, keep up with a certain rhythm, listen to parts of the score – so they could hear the rhythm they have to keep up with.

So we’re telling them “okay actors, you’re going to speak, you’re going to play rhythm on your body and you’re going to attempt to stay completely in time with this recorded piece of music that’s playing along.” I have to give the cast a tremendous amount of credit. It was tricky but they hung in there, and wanted to make it work. When you see the performance now, it all seems like second nature. But at the time of putting it together, we definitely had moments of thinking “oh my god, what have we done?”

OT: How have your audiences received the score?
LJ: People who are casual theatre fans are really excited by it. The reviews have either said “wow, this is a totally crazy interpretation of this play and I really enjoyed it” or “oh my god, what did they do, I don’t know how I feel about it!”

One of the reviews called the score “post-Wayne’s World,” so if your relationship to hard rock music is Wayne’s World, I don’t know if there’s much I can do to help you.

OT: Scoring any play, but especially a Shakespeare classic like Richard the Third, is no small task. Why do you think this job is so important, and what keeps you in this industry?
LJ: I’ve started teaching how to write theatre compositions recently and one of the things I like to tell my students is that music is really the emotional context by which you’re going to receive drama. This speech I’m giving right now about how music affects – you could imagine that while I’m giving it there’s a slow building underscore that’s really inspirational and exciting. That’s going to totally frame the context by which you’re getting this information. If I gave the same speech with dark scar music, it completely changes the context by which you see it because now you’re imagining something terrible is going to happen.

Music is incredibly powerful and influential. When you’re given the responsibility of creating music that’s going to match live drama, you really have a great responsibility to try to make the music as close to what the action is as possible, so that the audience is receiving the clearest and most expressive form of the story.

Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Richard the Third runs through Sunday, March 10 at Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Sidney Harman Hall. Tickets $44-$102. For more on composer Lindsay Jones, visit www.linsdayjones.com. You can find the punk, metal and doom rock songs that inspired Jones’ compositions below.

Sidney Harman Hall: 610 F St. NW, DC; 202-547-1122; www.shakespearetheatre.org

Richard the Third – tracks and influences

Track: Richard III 

Influence – Black Sabbath by Black Sabbath 

Track: This Is War

Influence – Boilermaker by The Jesus Lizard

Track: To The Sanctuary 

Influence: Bliss In Concrete by Pelican 

Track: Full Speed Ahead 

Influence: Otsegolectric by Static-X 

Track: Zadok The Priest 

Influence: The Prophet’s Song by Queen 

Track: A Needless Coward 

Influence: This Isn’t The Place by Nine Inch Nails 

Photo: Gian Di Stefano

Kristin Chenoweth Brings Wicked Fun to Strathmore

They say good things come in small packages, and 4-foot-11 dynamo Kristin Chenoweth is a living example that the phrase applies to performers as well. Known for her incredible singing on Broadway, her quirky character roles in movies and on TV, and her oodles of charm in just about every performance she’s ever done, Chenoweth is beloved by people of all ages.

She won a Tony for her performance as Sally Brown in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown in 1999, though she’s best-known for her renowned run as Glinda in the Broadway smash Wicked. Other memorable runs on the Great White Way include roles in The Apple Tree, On the Twentieth Century and Promises, Promises. And there’s no role she hasn’t made a lasting impression with on-screen, from West Wing to Trial & Error to Neil Gaiman’s American Gods.

“I’m very proud of the work I’ve done and have been blessed with some amazing roles,” Chenoweth says. “The critics have always enjoyed these choices and that makes me understand I am on the same planet as everyone else. I know what I think is tasteful and funny and good, and that always seems to line up with them and that makes me happy.”

A veteran of the concert stage, the Tony- and Emmy-winning actress will perform at Strathmore on April 8 with a show any Broadway fan is sure to love.

“This concert is timed really well because my new album will be coming out around Mother’s Day, and I would like to start bringing some songs from that to my shows,” she says. “I don’t have a title yet, but I keep calling it For the Girls. It’s my way of giving myself permission to sing other women artists whose work has inspired me and changed my life musically.”

That means songs from performers like Dinah Washington, Judy Garland, Dolly Parton and Eva Cassidy.

“It’s really going to be a celebration of women. It’s important for me to recognize singer-songwriters like Chely Wright – who is a giant in the country music industry – and there’s an original song I wrote with her that I am excited to play for people.”

There’s a big part of Chenoweth, she says, that wants to be a mentor to younger audiences and teach them about some of these songs and singers who they may not be familiar with. It’s something she realized while doing an episode of Glee.

“Ryan Murphy had me sing ‘Maybe This Time’ from Cabaret, and I just assumed everyone knew that song. But so many people reached out to me on social media asking where the song came from. I just died because these kids don’t know. I want to let them know who came before me and even some who may be younger than I. Just because you like one certain type of music doesn’t mean you can’t research and learn to appreciate others.”

Her concert will also include plenty of Broadway tunes, jazz standards, gospel songs and even opera, plus tunes from her previous release of American Songbook classics The Art of Elegance.

“Of course I’m going to sing ‘Popular’ and some songs that I will never not sing because it’s part of my DNA, but I want to make it a new show every time,” she says.

Another song that’s sure to be on the set list is “Taylor, the Latte Boy” written by Marcy Heisler and Zina Goldrich, which tells the humorous tale of a woman who falls for her barista at Starbucks.

“I was a young Kristin Chenoweth doing Steel Pier at the time [in 1997] and there was a performance honoring Kander and Ebb [a famous songwriting team], and someone handed me this music. Marcy and Zina told me they had been writing the song with me in mind. I was so nervous because the show was the next day and it’s not a short song. I spent the rest of the night learning it, and as I did, I realized this is totally me. I sang it that night and wow, did it go over.”

Soon after, she sang the song on The Rosie O’Donnell Show and it’s been a staple of her performances ever since.

“As artists, we have to recognize and understand that when we don’t sing songs like this, it’s a let down to the audience. I know that because I once saw Barbra Streisand live and she didn’t sing ‘People.’ I learned a lot there.”

The singer is very familiar with Strathmore, having starred in the Music Center’s groundbreaking I am Anne Hutchinson/I am Harvey Milk production in 2016. Currently, she doesn’t have any concrete plans to go back on Broadway. But last October, Chenoweth and her original Wicked costar Idina Menzel reunited for the NBC special A Very Wicked Halloween, and the duo’s magic was reignited on an astounding version of the show’s “For Good.” She has a few things in the fire for 2019 and is looking forward to touring at concert venues around the country when not filming any TV projects.

“Currently, I’m in development season and there are three ideas I have that three different writers have put a treatment to. I’ve fallen in love with all of them, so I do believe I will be doing something new on television soon. I’d rather do something that is me and my taste. I’m always going to choose and do something a little offbeat. That’s who I am.”

A lesson she says she’s been learning over and over in the past year is not being so serious and just enjoying the moment. Last fall, she traveled to Italy and sang a duet with Andrea Bocelli to a pretty famous audience and screwed up a song. She stopped and started over and then just messed up again and decided to cut to the end.

“People were loving it. It reminds you that life isn’t always perfect and in some ways that was my favorite moment of the trip. I am a perfectionist and I can get myself wound up pretty high. I had to laugh, and I did. Sometimes that happens in concerts and I may forget a word and I’ll point it out. I like using those moments to show I am not a robot. I am not autotuned. I am an artist who is real and authentic.”

She promises that people who don’t know who she is when they come in the door at Strathmore will know who she is when they leave.

“I want people to come to this show and be in the moment and enjoy themselves. It’s a treat you give yourself when you do that. We think we’re doing the right thing when we’re worrying about something, but I want people to put all that aside and just go with me on this journey. It will be an extraordinary, fun night.”

Kristin Chenoweth will perform at Strathmore on Monday, April 8 at 8 p.m. Tickets start at $78 and are available at www.strathmore.org.

Learn more about Chenoweth at www.officialkristinchenoweth.com and follow her on Instagram and Twitter @kchenoweth.

The Music Center at Strathmore: 5301 Tuckerman Ln. North Bethesda, MD; 301-581-5200; www.strathmore.org

Photo: Kahn & Selesnick

Amanda Palmer Gets Deeply Personal with No Intermission

It’s no surprise Amanda Palmer tweeted a video of Rocky’s training montage from Sylvester Stallone’s franchise. This particular one isn’t the most famous – I think him running up the Philadelphia Museum of Art steps takes the cake – but the “Hearts on Fire”-led video depicts a bearded Rocky running up a mountain, chopping down trees and shouting “Drago!” Palmer isn’t a boxer, and she’s not prepping to rescue the world from communism in a 12-round bout, but she’s a f–king fighter, and she needed a little motivation this morning.

“To be f–king honest with you, that was the first [song] YouTube gave me,” Palmer says with a snicker. “I woke up with my list of sh-t to do rolling through my head, and I had to lift wood because I’m literally living in the [wilderness] and loading up on firewood. I’m training to fight patriarchy. It’s galvanizing me.”

Palmer has been shaking up the music world since 2000 when she and Brian Viglione formed The Dresden Dolls. In the nearly two decades since, she’s produced a variety of music ranging from orchestral mashups to eclectic covers of Radiohead to tributes to David Bowie. With a background in theatre and other forms of performance art, it’s rare that her music stays on the tracks as it typically bleeds into other mediums. Now she’s gearing up for a tour in late March focused on a mixed-medium release titled There Will Be No Intermission, which includes a full-length album, an artbook, videos and live performances with a stop at National Theatre on April 5.

“There was no question I’d take the show on the road,” Palmer says. “I’ve never had a cohesive show; it’s usually been a grab bag. This album, where it came from and what it represents to me, brings with it a kind of accountability where I don’t want to f–k it up. I’ve really had to think hard about how to be a guidance counselor for the audience as far as navigating this material and digesting it.”

Her career is very much built on the personal relationship she has with her audience, and Palmer’s upcoming tour features her most intimate revealings yet with songs about abortion, miscarriages and other powerful vignettes from her life story.

“This record was written in real time and while these things were happening. In a song like ‘Voicemail for Jill,’ I look at it honestly; it took me years to write. I sat down dozens of times, and I found writing about abortion incredibly difficult. You could look at that song and say it took 23 years to write.”

The music on the record and in her performance vacillates from whimsical to serious, dark to witty, political to personal. Despite the wide range of topics and emotions tapped, the piece never feels disjointed and everything is connected.

“You can’t separate the political landscape from the personal experience I’ve had the past few years,” the artist says. “My child was born when Trump became president. I’ll never be able to figure out which was the chicken and the egg, but all those things [led to] a sense of urgency. Even though this is the most personal, honest, inevitable record I’ve made, it feels the most political because the most powerful thing a woman can do right now is tell the truth about an experience.”

The album title represents a clever way of declaring that life never stops. Sometimes there are no breaks in the waves, no pauses for breath and no time to gather yourself in a tough situation. Despite the subtext of the name, the songs are broken up by peaceful interludes of instrumentation.

“There are intermissions – the irony continues,” Palmer says laughing. “They’re the breathing space in between the assaults. I wanted to give the entire album space. I’m really happy; it was a happy accident.”

She did toy with the idea of doing the performance straight through. However, because of the heavy subject matter and emotional relentlessness, she decided to reconsider after a test run where people wandered in and out of where she was rehearsing.

“It’s difficult, and I need to let them leave,” she says candidly. “I’ve tried to address people and no one’s ever angry, but I’ve had to develop a way to warn them about what’s onstage. You don’t go see Halloween 8 and expect a guy without a knife, just like you’re not coming to an Amanda Palmer show and expecting Disney songs and jazz hands.”

Luckily for Palmer, most of her fans are kept up-to-date by the artist herself. She’s constantly finding new ways to interact with the people who have enabled her to be a self-sufficient artist. Through membership platform Patreon and other fundraising methods, she has remained independent as a musician, allowing her art to be beautifully, brutally honest.

“I’ve never separated my evolution as songwriter and performing artist with the conversation I’m having with the rest of the world. If anything, those two things have become intertwined. It’s way less scary. I didn’t want to be an artist separate from a community, behind a wall. I got into making music because I wanted to connect with people.”

Connect with Amanda Palmer at National Theatre on Friday, April 5 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $39-$54 and available at www.thenationaldc.org. Learn more about Palmer and her tour at www.nointermission.amandapalmer.net.

National Theatre: 1321 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, DC; 202-628-6161; www.thenationaldc.org

Stage and Screen: March 2019

THROUGH SUNDAY, MARCH 24

Blood at the Root
Blood at the Root is the story of what happens when a black student chooses to occupy a primarily white space in her high school, driving hate, violence and chaos among her classmates. The play, inspired by the Jena Six court case in Louisiana, examines the link between bias, justice and identity and asks audiences to consider what is lost when implicit biases shape our view of – and adherence to – justice. Written by Dominique Morisseau, the play is described as moving, lyrical and bold. Various dates and times. Tickets $40. The Anacostia Playhouse: 2020 Shannon Pl. SE, DC; www.anacostiaplayhouse.com

FRIDAY, MARCH 1 – SUNDAY, APRIL 14

JQA
The latest offering from award-winning playwright Aaron Posner, JQA is an imaginative and thought-provoking story that illustrates conversations between John Quincy Adams, who was known for his integrity, statesmanship and arrogance, with other American leaders including Frederick Douglass, Andrew Jackson and his own father John Adams. Described as provocative, haunting and hilarious, JQA received an Edgerton Foundation New Play Award. Various dates and times. Tickets $92-$115. Arena Stage: 1101 6th St. NW, DC; www.arenastage.org

MONDAY, MARCH 4 – SUNDAY, MARCH 24

Confection
The newest offering from New York-based Third Rail Projects is an immersive, multisensory dance and theatre performance staged throughout the Folger Reading Rooms. Inspired by the richness of the Folger Library and the lavishness of the 17th-century aristocracy, the performance examines the power of appetite and desire. Directed by Zach Morris and Jennine Willett, Confection is a story of opulence and consumption that not only invites audiences into the Folger’s magnificent Reading Rooms, but also invites them to enjoy bite-sized treats made by local pâtissiers. Various dates and times. Tickets $40-$60. Folger Shakespeare Library: 201 E Capitol St. SE, DC; www.folger.edu

FRIDAY, MARCH 8 – WEDNESDAY, MAY 22

Into the Woods
Ford Theatre’s Into the Woods is a darkly funny reimagining of several beloved fairy tales from the minds of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine. The play follows a baker and his wife on a quest to break a witch’s curse, which leads them into the woods where they cross paths with timeless characters like Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel, and a pair of lovelorn princes. The play has won Tony Awards for score and script, and this Peter Flynn-directed rendition promises to inspire both laughs and introspection. Various dates and times. Tickets $28-$81. Ford’s Theatre: 511 10th St. NW, DC; www.fords.org

SATURDAY, MARCH 9 – SATURDAY, APRIL 6

Hands on a Hardbody
Featuring a score by Amanda Green and Phish’s Trey Anastasio, Hands on a Hardbody tells the story of 10 Texans competing to win a new truck. The contest is hilarious and hard-fought, and characters learn that perseverance, determination and hope can lead them to their American Dream. The play has been described as a quintessential American musical, and features a diverse cast of characters highlighting the intersectionality of the American identity. Set to a score featuring blues, country and R&B, Hands on a Hardbody is a quirky play that promises to enliven the District in its regional premiere. Various dates and times. Tickets $62. Keegan Theatre: 1742 Church St. NW, DC; www.keegantheatre.com

TUESDAY, MARCH 14 – SUNDAY, MARCH 24

The National Geographic Society Environmental Film Festival
The Environmental Film Festival returns to the District for its 27th year. Sponsored by National Geographic, featured films tackle important environmental issues like overfishing and climate change in addition to presenting visually stunning tales of adventure like the Academy Award-nominated Free Solo, which follows Alex Honnold’s free climb of Yosemite’s El Capitan. The festival includes 11 days of documentary film screenings at more than 25 venues. Details on the films, schedule and tickets are available online. Tickets $12. Times and locations vary. National Geographic Society Environmental Film Festival: Various locations in DC; www.DCeff.org

MONDAY, MARCH 25

Bon Iver & TU Dance’s Come Through
In the first event of the Kennedy Center’s DIRECT CURRENT season highlighting contemporary culture, Bon Iver and TU Dance’s collaboration Come Through fuses genres and mediums. Over a soundtrack featuring new music from two-time Grammy winner Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, nine-member dance troupe TU Dance will mix varied styles such as classical ballet and modern dance. Show starts at 7:30 p.m. Tickets start at $49. The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts: 2700 F St. NW, DC; www.kennedy-center.org

TUESDAY, MARCH 26 – SUNDAY, MARCH 31

A Bronx Tale
Directed by Robert De Niro and Jerry Zaks, A Bronx Tale has been described as Jersey Boys meets West Side Story. Set in 1960s New York, the musical tells the story of a young man who must choose between his father’s love and his ambition to be a “made man” in the mafia. The score is comprised of 60s-era doo-wop, and the play contains several ensemble dance numbers. A Bronx Tale features numerous actors and actresses from its time on Broadway, and offers audiences opportunities to laugh, cry and tap their feet. Various dates and times. Tickets $54-$99. National Theatre: 1321 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, DC; www.thenationaldc.org

Photo: Jeremy Daniel

Finding Neverland at National Theatre Hooks DC with its Cuteness

The talented company behind Finding Neverland is making a short but sweet stop at the historic National Theatre in DC. British playwright and screenwriter James Graham’s work comes to life with charming music, a dash of romance, heaps of comedy and adorable children. Though some theatre-goers may believe this musical focuses solely on the beloved Peter Pan, it’s less about pirates and fairies, and more about the inspiration behind the story’s famous playwright, J.M. Barrie, portrayed by a charismatic Jeff Sullivan.

Sullivan enchants the audience immediately with the opening monologue/introduction in Act I, and his gentleness and playfulness with the young actors is fun to watch. One of the easiest things to enjoy about this show is the connection between Mr. Barrie and widow Sylvia Llewelyn Davies and her four sons.

Sylvia’s son Peter, Barrie’s inspiration for the Peter Pan character, begins as the most mature of his brothers, portrayed as book-smart with a no-nonsense attitude. However, Peter eventually begins to indulge in the silliness that his siblings and Mr. Barrie provide. Collectively, these five characters hammer in the main theme of imagination with the performances of “Believe,” “Play” and the entirety of “The Dinner Party” scene, which gave the audience a good laugh, from the stuffy characters’ behavior to messing with a toupee.

It’d be foolish not to mention one of the musical’s main scene stealers, Charles Frohman, Barrie’s demanding producer, played hilariously and gruffly by Conor McGiffin. McGiffin doubles as Captain James Hook as well – the character who stems from the dark side of J.M. Barrie’s personality. Both characters McGiffin plays are loud, obnoxious and comedic, so all eyes and laughs are on him when he’s center stage.

The Disney magic, if you will, appears through the dreamy production and set design features, such as light projections, shiny fairy dust and twinkling starry nights. Some of J.M. Barrie’s imagination/dream scenes in the musical involved members of the company impressively choreographed in sync with both the music and the projections, which added to the musical’s creative strengths. A favorite subtlety of mine was seeing the cloud scenery change as time went on.

The entire cast is full of bright energy that keeps you smiling  throughout. There’s even a live dog that plays the Llewelyn Davies’ pet who gives the audience “oohs,” “aahs” and “aaws” at every appearance.

In addition to the show being a visual masterpiece, it’s clear the cast means business when it comes to the elegant singing moments, especially Sullivan’s graceful tenor voice married with Ruby Gibbs’ (the female lead character, Sylvia) stunning, lyrical vocals. Even the terribly precious young boys shine in perfect harmony during their performance of “We’re All Made of Stars.”

From the humor to the heart-warming and emotional moments, Finding Neverland is a musical that will resonate with any audience. See the musical at DC’s National Theatre now through Sunday, March 23. Tickets available at www.thenationaldc.org.

National Theatre DC: 1321 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, DC; www.thenationaldc.org

Photo: Courtesy of Tap Dogs Photography

Tap Dogs kicks off US tour with Kennedy Center Performances

Originating in Newcastle, Australia, a steel town outside of Sydney, the Tap Dogs fuses an industrial grittiness and precise choreography. The show has been touring the world since the mid 1990s, and is in the U.S. for the next several months. Justin Myles, one of Tap Dogs’ leads, toured internationally with STOMP for seven years, and has choreographed and performed in numerous settings the world over. Both Tap Dogs and DC are close to Myles’ heart. During a rare bit of downtime, he spoke to On Tap about the show that inspired him to dance professionally – a show so exuberant, so expressive and energetic that performers must wear custom boots because traditional tap shoes cannot handle the intensity of the choreography.

On Tap: You’re from the area, aren’t you? And you’ve performed at the Kennedy Center before, what’s it like?
Justin Myles: I was born in College Park, and moved to southern Maryland as a child. Since then I’ve lived in DC, and in Baltimore for a while. I’ve been travelling since the early 2000s, [so] coming back to DC is great. [The city] has always thrived musically, and it has spread into the dance community. There’s so much history in the Kennedy Center, and it’s always a very awesome time. Audiences in DC are stellar; they’re warm, welcoming and ready to be entertained.

OT: Can you tell me a bit about your role in the show?
JM: I play Rat. He wears a backwards cap, nags the other characters and generally provides some comic relief. We all have our own character roles, extensions of who we are in real life. The whole show has comedy wrapped around it, but at the end of the day, we all go to work. It’s rock meets construction meets tap meets comedy.

OT: What’s the cast like?
JM: The cast is great. It’s half Australian and half American, guys ranging from 21 to 38 years old. We have Tap Dogs’ creator Dean Perry’s son Reed Perry playing the role of The Kid. There’s a variety of experience levels, but an incredible level of energy across the board. [Tap Dogs] is powerful and impactful, people will be blown away.

OT: Tell me about your introduction to the show.
JM: I love the show. I fell in love with the show in my teens, at the point in my life when I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. [Tap Dogs] showed me tap dance can be strong, professional and powerful. It kicked me in the right direction.

I saw [Tap Dogs] on VHS and live. I saw it live and fell in love with it, then I had it on VHS and watched it all the time. I went to New York to audition for the show in my teens, I think I was 16. They said I was too young, but I held on and finally got into it when I was old enough.

OT: What is the staging like for the show?
JM: The six original cast members in 1995 all grew up in a big steel community, and did tap dancing. So they built Tap Dogs out of the concept of steelworkers tap dancing and built the set around a workman’s set. There are different platforms we dance on made of metal and wood, ladders, scaffolding, two musicians playing in band towers and more.

OT: What appeals to you about performing in Tap Dogs?
JM: In my work I try to fuse everything I’ve learned over my career. The show has a percussive drive, but Tap Dogs is also very rock n’ roll driven. There are no top hats and canes – that’s not all tap is.

Tap Dogs will be performed at the Kennedy Center, February 21-24. Showtimes and ticket prices vary. Tickets available at www.kennedy-center.org.

The Kennedy Center: 2700 F St. NW, DC; 202-467-4600; www.kennedy-center.org

Photo: DJ Corey Photography

“The Master and Margarita” Paints Unique Picture of Soviet Union

The Constellation Theatre Company took a dramatic shift in their current season with their newest addition, The Master and Margarita.

Based on a novel by Russian writer Mikhail Bulgakov and adapted by Edward Kemp, the story was penned in the Soviet Union during Joseph Stalin’s regime. The plot follows the love affair of a playwright, known as The Master (played by Alexander Strain), and a married woman, known as Margarita (played by Amanda Forstrom).

Throughout the production, both characters and audiences grapple with a religious discourse that propels this daring and risqué play.

In an effort to avoid any spoilers, let’s focus on why you should see the performance.

It’s a romantic dramedy that will transport you to a time where censorship was a common method of oppression. The fact that it’s based in the Soviet Union, proves that these atrocious acts are still in affect today. However, in this tale the oppression is one of a comical nature, where you may find yourself rooting for a group you otherwise wouldn’t agree with.

Another is the included magic show that will dazzle even the biggest skeptic. Nicely coupled with a dance and song, the Devil and his crew shine in their spot-on red sparkling 1920s flappers’ attire. It’s moments like these that make you truly wonder what the secret behind a magician is.

Next, we have the poetic love language that causes all hearts to croon. One thing the Russian literary greats have certainly perfected is professing their adoration for loved ones. The streams of decrees fallen on willing ears captivate. This may leave you envious, wishing you too had the words to properly declare your love. Perhaps the only thing missing is a strong Russian accent.

Lastly, we have a talking cat and pig. Honestly, what more could you desire?

Frankly, while one of the many premises of this intricately layered play focuses on the plight of Pontius Pilate days before the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, the ensemble manages to keep things light and airy. Scenes often leave the audiences to ponder the appropriate reaction to the moments carefully played out in this intimate theater. It’s a complex story and if you’re not listening carefully, you could easily miss a key factor.

Fortunate for all, returning director Allison Arkell Stockman pleasantly produces a revolving door of antics to keep even the most effortlessly distracted person’s eyes glued to the stage. There’s a striptease, decapitated heads, non-revealing “sex” scenes, and, again, a talking cat and pig.

The Master and Margarita is showing through March 3 at Source Theatre. Tickets are $29-$45 and can be purchased at constellationtheatre.org.

Source Theatre: 1835 14th St. NW, DC; 202-204-7741; constellationtheatre.org