Photo: Darian Volkova, courtesy of State Academic Mariinsky Theatre

Review: Mariinsky Ballet’s Paquita at the Kennedy Center

A young girl and her father are sitting across from me on the shuttle bus to the Kennedy Center. She’s wearing colorful dinosaur tights. I look down at my own tights – black with a small tear threatening to become a hole. The other people on the shuttle are dressed in crisp suits and elegant dresses. We’re all on our way to see the Mariinsky Ballet perform Paquita

I worry that once I step inside the building, I’ll feel even more out of place. The stereotype of the stuffy ballet attendee doesn’t coincide with my thrift store dress or the fast food I ate for dinner. Am I couth enough to see a ballet? Am I couth enough to use the word couth?

I’m not sure how ballet took on this reputation, but Paquita was far from stuffy; it was whimsical, exciting and heartfelt. A storybook narrative that came to life with every twirl of a cape or swish of a skirt. The picturesque painted sets and hanging props served as a beautiful backdrop for the romantic tale of Paquita and Andres.

As a ballet beginner, the playbill proved a great companion. The clear synopsis quelled my fears of confusion. While normally spoilers are unwanted, they were helpful in knowing what’s happening while still being able to focus on the dancers. It also provided history about the production and the Mariinsky Ballet. You don’t have to know the difference between a pirouette and a plie to understand the storyline or appreciate the talent involved. 

Maria Khoreva was stunning as the spirited, strong-willed Paquita. Stolen from nobility at birth, Paquita now lives as a street dancer with a traveling group. She has many adoring suitors, but it is Andres who she asks to prove his love. Andres joins the travelers but finds troubles when the group is accused of theft. The third and final act ends in a grand pas wedding that features lead performers and soloists.   

I found myself being caught off guard by the moments of humor. I genuinely didn’t know that ballet could be so funny. One scene featured two men dancing, perfectly in sync, beneath a horse costume. A third man proceeded to try and ride said horse. The audience was audibly amused. Several times throughout the performance awes and exclamations could be heard throughout the arena. It felt like we were all watching a sporting event together and our team was doing really well. 

Outside of the opera house is a glass case featuring the costumes worn in the show. Every handsewn bead is a reminder of the work put into the show. Every tutu was perfectly fluffed. Every note of the orchestra, lead by Gavriel Heine, was at the exact right moment. The amount of syncretization that goes into the production is unfathomable to me – I can’t even get all of my friends to show up for lunch at the same time. Yuri Smekalov managed to create a nearly three-hour dance routine that never became dull or tedious.   

You can wear an expensive suit or dinosaur tights and it doesn’t matter because ballet is a form of escapism. Who doesn’t want to enter a world where all conflict is fought through dance and everything ends with a big wedding? There is a reason why the Mariinsky Ballet has been putting on performances since the 18th century, and it has nothing to do with the disposition of the audience. It’s the combination of beauty, passion and skill that makes going to the ballet a timeless event. 

The Mariinsky Ballet’s Paquita is being performed at the Kennedy Center through October 13. For information on tickets and showtimes, visit here.

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

Photo: courtesy of the Kennedy Center

A Footloose Conversation with Isabelle McCalla

The movie Footloose evokes memories of a young Kevin Bacon angrily dancing next to that iconic yellow Volkswagen Bug. Maybe you think of the popular Kenny Loggins’ song of the same name? The music, clothing and cinematography all scream 1980s. So why is this story continually rewatched and remade? After speaking with Broadway Center Stage: Footloose star Isabelle McCalla, it’s clear this narrative is still extremely relevant.

The Kennedy Center is bringing Footloose to DC with a star-studded cast. Among them is McCalla, who in addition to playing the role of Ariel in this production, has played Princess Jasmine in Aladdin on Broadway and originated the role of Alyssa on Broadway’s The Prom. Like her character Ariel, McCalla is no stranger to standing up for what she believes in. She and her The Prom co-star, Caitlin Kinnunen, shared the first same-sex kiss in Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade history. Before seeing her on stage, read on to learn more about her history with the material, performing in DC and more. 

On Tap: The movie Footloose came out in 1984, the musical was introduced in 1998, and the movie was then remade in 2011, what do you think is so compelling about the story that makes it able to span decades?
Isabelle McCalla: I think it’s really a story of communication, or the lack thereof, and people with different ideologies who don’t see eye-to-eye. It’s a story of people who listen and understand someone who walks in a different pair of shoes. So I think that has transcended and we do it with musical comedy, and that’s what’s so incredible. 

OT: At the very heart of it, Footloose is about young people fighting for what they believe in. This is very relevant today, especially here in DC. Does performing at the nation’s capital have a different impact?
IM: Oh absolutely! We are in a very difficult time in our history where there is a lot of negative rhetoric going on and the people in charge aren’t necessarily representing their constituents. [Footloose] is about a time when the new generation has to do some toe stepping while standing up for what they believe in and it will resonate a lot with the people living in DC today.   

OT: What was your first experience with the film?
IM: I’ve actually never seen it!

OT: Really?
IM: Yeah, I somehow managed to go my entire life without seeing it. It helps keep it fresh for me in the role.

OT: What drew you to the character of Ariel?
IM: I like that she is very intelligent and able to play the various facets of her society. She knows exactly what roles she has to play with which type of people to get by. She has a hunger and thirst for knowledge, and she just wants to get out of her small town and make something of her life. That’s not something that many people in her community aspire to necessarily. That’s been fun to tap into. She’s very dynamic. It’s hard to find roles that are so versatile, in the sense that they can be vulnerable and demure yet so confident and sexy at the same time. Ariel is kinda the whole package there.

OT: Obviously, the narrative focuses on a small town that bans dancing. You originated the role of Alyssa in The Prom, a musical about a small town that shuts down a prom because Alyssa and her girlfriend want to attend. Are there any similarities between Ariel and Alyssa?
IM: There are similarities in that they both have broken relationships with their parents. They love their parents but for some reason or other, Ariel with her father and Alyssa with her mother, their parents have visions for their daughters that don’t line up with their daughters and who those characters actually are. It’s constantly a fight to just be seen for who they are by their parents. 

OT: If music and dancing had been banned from your town, what would you be doing today?
IM: Oh my god. I would have to move towns. I love singing and dancing, but I’d probably be an investigative journalist. That was always a dream of mine. 

While McCalla isn’t sure what’s next, her successful career thus far is an indication of great things to come. See her in Footloose this Wednesday through Monday, October 14. Showtimes vary, tickets $59-$175. For more information, click here.

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

Shelly Lynn Walsh, Peter Michael Jordan, Chris Clark, and Sarah Hinrichsen // Photo: Matthew Murphy

Parrot Heads Rejoice: Escape to Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville at National Theatre

With a song catalog that features party staples such as “Cheeseburger in Paradise,” “Come Monday,” “It’s Five O’clock Somewhere” and the anthem “Margaritaville,” Jimmy Buffett is considered a musical legend and the poster child of the island escapism lifestyle.

That same fun, laid back attitude has been captured in Escape to Margaritaville, a musical based on the songs of Buffett, which made its Broadway debut in 2017 where it wowed critics and audiences alike.

The National Tour of Escape to Margaritaville will play the National Theatre starting tonight through October 13, under the direction of Amy Anders Corcoran.

With a book by Emmy Award winner Greg Garcia and Emmy nominee Mike O’Malley, and 20 classic and new tunes by Buffett, the show’s story follows Tully (played by Chris Clark), a part-time bartender and singer who falls for a career-minded tourist named Rachel (Sarah Hinrichsen). In the land of Margaritaville, people come to get away from it all, but often stay after discovering something they never expected.

Hinrichsen saw the show during its Broadway run two years ago and really fell in love with it, coming out of it singing the songs like most of the audience did.

“It’s just a fun show and it was a good time,” she says. “When you’re a performer, you always look if there’s a track you could play, and I thought Rachel was really interesting and something I would enjoy. In the month’s following, I would get texts from my friends saying that it would be a great part for me, so when the tour was casting, I went in.”

She describes Rachel as “a workaholic, who may come off as aggressive, but is really just so focused.” The character is passionate about a project she’s working on where she’s trying to power a light bulb with a potato and creating energy from a volcano that’s on the island.

“When she meets Tully, he teaches her about balance and how she can have a strong work life and also one of fun and letting go,” Hinrichsen says. “It lets people see that they can blend two important parts of their life and you can have it all.”

Although not a die-hard Buffett fan, the actress knew many of his popular songs and had eaten more than once at the Cheeseburger in Paradise restaurant.

“So, I wasn’t a Parrot Head per se,” Hinrichsen says. “Our Tully though, Chris Clark, has this crazy story about how his dad went to a Jimmy Buffett concert two days after he was born because he couldn’t stay away. I’m not on that level, but I am definitely a big fan.”

During the musical, Hinrichsen gets to sing “It’s My Job,” and duet on “Three Chords,” an original tune created for the show where her character learns to play the guitar. She also takes part in numerous group numbers and other duets as well.

“The thing about his music is that it transports you to a place, and he’s such a storyteller that it really feels like a state of mind, like you’re on a beach or on an island,” she says. “You can’t sing these songs not smiling.”

The daughter of a director and actress, growing up in the Los Angeles theater scene, Hinrichsen jokes that she never had any other option but to become a performer and is thrilled to be doing her first national tour.

One of her favorite parts of Escape to Margaritaville comes early in Act 1 when the cast sings “Fins” and they encourage audience participation.

“As any Buffett fan knows, it’s a song where you put your hands in the air and show your ‘fins,’ and we always can tell the mood the audience is in based on the number of fins we see, and knowing they are with us,” she says. “It’s a night of fun and people shouldn’t be afraid to sing along and join in.”

The show also stars Shelly Lynn Walsh, Peter Michael Jordan, Rachel Lyn Fobbs, Patrick Cogan and Matthew James Sherrod.

Escape to Margaritaville plays the National Theatre until October 13. Tickets are $54-$114. For more information, visit thenationaldc.com.

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

WNO Costume Director Marsha LeBoeuf // Photos: Rich Kessler

Inside the Living, Breathing World of the Washington National Opera’s Costume Design

“They think of the costumes as living, breathing things. They develop intense relationships with the costumes themselves as they’re literally forming them with their hands.”

Timothy O’Leary is describing the love story between the Washington National Opera (WNO)’s costume team and the works of art they fit to singers not like a glove, but like a second layer of skin, an extension of their very being. And it’s an easy romance to get swept up in.

As WNO Costume Director Marsha LeBoeuf walks me through her vast costume shop in Takoma, my little performing arts geek heart begins to pitter patter. There’s a wig-making studio and a fabric-dying room and walls lined with every brightly colored shoe imaginable, not to mention never-ending rows of textures organized by production and drawers upon drawers of tiaras and pearls and other costumed jewels.

I’m sent over the edge when she pulls out a cape from the 1981 opera The Magic Flute, made particularly notable by Where the Wild Things Are author Maurice Sendak’s iconic design aesthetic. The ticking along the fabric looks remarkably like Sendak’s costume sketches and illustrations from his classic children’s book, and though not totally sure, she’s pretty convinced we’re touching fabric hand illustrated by Sendak himself.

“I’m just in awe of a costume shop like hers,” O’Leary says of LeBoeuf and her team’s 20,000-square-foot space. “The people who work there feel so strongly about doing everything exactly right.”

This devotion not only to precision but to the craft itself is evident in my hour spent with LeBoeuf, as she shares insight into the meticulous level of detail and care her staff must treat each individual costume with – and her own lifelong love affair with opera.

The 64-year-old costume director has been with the WNO, an artistic affiliate of the Kennedy Center, for 31 years, describing herself as “one of the lucky ones” for being able to spend her career doing what she went to school for. She started out as a freelance costume designer after receiving two theatre degrees, playing the role of designer, patternmaker, stitcher, painter, dyer and more before landing her a job with the District’s opera company in 1998.

Not only does she oversee costuming needs for all WNO productions, LeBoeuf and her team support other Kennedy Center programs as needed like its Theater for Young Audiences and Broadway Center Stage, including last fall’s Little Shop of Horrors. She describes the WNO costume studio, which has housed her staff’s robust operations since 2001, as a building shop.

When the WNO embarks on a new production or needs to create new costumes, her team works with designers to acquire the right fabrics for whatever they’re making. And though many of the operas brought to the Kennedy Center are touring productions with existing costumes, she notes that they still have to be customized to the WNO singers’ bodies.

“That’s our job, no matter if you’re the title character of if you are just in a crowd scene,” LeBoeuf says. “Every single costume on our stage is custom-fit to whoever gets to wear it.”

There’s much, much more that goes into each customization than the average audience member might realize, as opera singers have very specific needs onstage.

“Singers have a different kind of movement that they have to do,” she continues. “They have to be able to breathe. They have to be able to hear. We answer a lot of those types of questions in the fitting. It’s fun. I have so much respect for the way a singer prepares for a role, and it’s always been my secret delight to have something to do with that. We’re here to support.”

The scope and breadth of how the proverbial sausage is made is overwhelming: custom colorization of flesh-colored inserts to perfectly match singers’ flesh tones; crafting accurate, realistic hairlines for every single wig; and the stealthy insertion of cooling gel packs into wool uniforms for singers to avoid sweating profusely onstage, to name a few. But of paramount importance is giving singers as much flexibility and range of motion for their vocal cords as possible – often requested by male vocalists in particular is extra breathing room in fabric covering their throats.

“I like to think of costumes as a bit of armor that our performers put on to face what they call ‘the mouth of the wolf,’” LeBoeuf says. “That means you’re saying, ‘Good luck,’ because when the curtain opens and you face the audience, they are the wolf and you’re facing the mouth of the wolf. Those Italians, they’re so passionate and illustrative. I like to think of the costume as a bit of armor to help with that process.”

She describes each singer’s relationship with their costume as deeply personal, noting the often transformative and vulnerable moments that occur during the first fitting.

“Just about the most rewarding part of this job – aside from seeing those designs become three-dimensional costumes, that presents its own joy – is when you get to go in the fitting room and introduce a singer to a costume. You see them start to adapt those clothes as part of their character. That’s a huge moment for me. To get to see that brought to bear onstage is what keeps me here. It’s so much fun.”

LeBoeuf and her team act as translators of sorts, walking singers through the intricacies of their costumes while also honoring the conception of each individual production as envisioned by the stage director and designers.

“Within the context of the inevitable conversations we have when we are in a fitting situation, which is very personal as you would imagine, it is our job to answer any questions and give any information that we can to help that performer understand why they’re being asked to wear this particular costume this particular way.”

O’Leary has great respect for LeBoeuf and what he describes as her very high-pressure job to meet the costuming needs of performers who are doing something incredibly physically intense with their bodies onstage.

“People like Marsha and all the people who work within the costume shop are magician problem solvers because of the enormity of the task of putting an entire cast, chorus and dancers into all of the costumes that have to be fitted exactly to them. There’s an absolute deadline: opening night curtain. Everything’s got to be ready.”

The WNO’s general director reiterates how much the costumes matter to the singers, allowing them to truly inhabit their characters. He waxes poetic about how opera is a completely vibrant art form in the 21st century, and an enormously expressive medium.

“It’s not worth telling a story in opera if there’s no reason for the characters to express their feelings through this kind of singing,” he says. “Some stories make more sense as a play or a movie, but some stories make sense as an opera because they deal with the deepest emotions that we have.”

The kind of singing he’s referring to is what LeBoeuf describes as “different from anything else that’s amplified.”

“The amplification is natural,” she says. “The loudness you hear from those instruments comes from the instruments themselves. The voices you hear in your seat in the second tier are not coming to you through speakers. They’re coming to you from those singers’ vocal apparatuses.”

Both WNO leaders rave about the upcoming season, with Otello opening on October 26 and the aforementioned The Magic Flute opening on November 2. O’Leary describes Otello as a blood-and-guts Italian opera that lives up to the traditional definition of opera with every fiber, and playfully refers to The Magic Flute as a “gateway opera,” a great introduction to the genre for Sendak fans and opera newbies alike.

Magic Flute is adorable,” LeBoeuf says. “If heavy drama isn’t your bag, come to Magic Flute. It’s uplifting like crazy, and colorful. It was created originally by Maurice Sendak and it has been loved for many years. The original scenery was lost in Hurricane Katrina and has been lovingly recreated. Some of the original costumes did survive and they are from his creative source. They’re very Sendakian looking.”

She and O’Leary mention the highly anticipated opera Blue, coming to the Kennedy Center next March, about a family’s tragic experience losing their teenage son to a police shooting. LeBoeuf embraces the unique challenges of getting the costumes just right for a 21st-century production.

“This is a contemporary tragic tale ripped right off the headlines, so people are going to know what they’re looking at. If you’re putting a New York cop onstage, it’s got to look like a New York cop. If you’re putting his troubled teenager onstage, you’ve got to know who that is. You don’t come out of those performances screaming about the costumes. They don’t take an overt presence in your mind. But the characters get under your skin, so you’ve got to get that right.”

O’Leary views this new opera as a modern version of works that came before it, a window into the breadth of the art form.

“Opera is so weighted down with stereotype that the broader public often doesn’t realize that a piece like Blue is just part of a continuum,” he says.

When I ask LeBoeuf why she thinks opera remains relevant, she tells me that every time she’s subconsciously put the genre in a box, her eyes have been opened.

“People who are not in my generation – and not just 30-somethings, I’m talking about teenagers – I will encounter them and realize they have discovered this performing art form, and really think it’s great and want to be exposed to more of it. This amazing combination of orchestra music, theatre and some incredibly beautiful singing can just take you to a different place emotionally.

I really think that sitting quietly and letting opera happen to you is a very rewarding experience if you will take the time to let it happen.”

Otello runs from October 26 to November 16 with tickets starting at $45, and The Magic Flute runs from November 2-23 with tickets starting at $25. Learn more about the WNO’s upcoming season at www.kennedy-center.org/wno.

The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts: 2700 F St. NW, DC; 202-467-4600; www.kennedy-center.org/wno

The Tempest at Synetic Theater

Stage and Screen: October 2019

THROUGH SUNDAY, OCTOBER 20

The Tempest
Originally premiering in 2013, Synetic is bringing back its unique take on The Tempest. Join the sorceress Prospera, played by Synetic co-founder Irina Tsikurishvili, as she creates a sea storm that gets out of hand. As a part of their Wordless Shakespeare series, The Tempest is brought to life through movement and a 1,200-square-foot pool flooding the stage. Water is a powerful element in this magical play of enemies, deception and vengeance. Tickets are available in the “splash zone” with ponchos provided. Various dates and times. Tickets $19-$60. Synetic Theater: 1800 S Bell St. Arlington VA
www.synetictheater.org

THOUGH SUNDAY, OCTOBER 27

Pride and Prejudice
Kate Hamill’s Pride and Prejudice adaptation brings a fresh take to the beloved story of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy. Mrs. Bennet wants her five daughters married, including the headstrong Elizabeth. When rich, handsome, but standoffish Mr. Darcy moves in, Elizabeth and the Bennet family are forever changed. In a time where class rules society, can Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy ever see eye to eye? Various dates and times. Tickets $35-$50. Next Stop Theatre Company: 269 Sunset Park Dr. Herndon, VA; www.nextstoptheatre.org

THROUGH SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 3

Escaped Alone
Making her Signature Theatre debut, Caryl Churchill’s Escaped Alone is not what it seems. DC actress Holly Twyford directs this tale of three old friends and a neighbor having afternoon tea in the garden. Through their mundane conversation, it becomes clear there is a horror that lives in each of these women. The frightening undertones allow for cutting humor as well as an eerie sense of doom. Various dates and times. Tickets $40-$90. Signature Theatre: 4200 Campbell Ave. Arlington,VA; www.sigtheatre.org

WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 9 – MONDAY, OCTOBER 14

Broadway Center Stage: Footloose
Based on the popular film starring Kevin Bacon, Footloose is dancing its way to the Kennedy Center. This musical is about a small town that outlaws music and dancing, and the teen who fights these unfair changes. Musical numbers include hits such as “Holding Out for a Hero,” “Let’s Hear it for the Boys” and, of course, “Footloose.” The show has a star-studded cast including three-time Tony Award nominee Rebecca Lu and four-time Tony Award nominee Judy Kuhn. Various dates and times. Tickets $59-$175. Kennedy Center: 2700 F St. NW, DC; www.kennedy-center.org

FRIDAY, OCTOBER 11

Rocky Horror Picture Show
Let’s do the Time Warp again! Join the Sonic Transducers, DC’s one and only Rocky Horror shadow cast, as they lip sync and act alongside the cult film. This midnight showing is an interactive movie experience. Purchase a $1 prop bag filled with rice, confetti, hot dogs and other items to throw. Other ways to get involved include yelling call backs at the screen and dressing up in costume. 11:59 p.m. Tickets $10. Landmark’s E Street Cinema: 555 11th St. NW, DC;
www.landmarktheatres.com

THURSDAY, OCTOBER 17

The NoSleep Podcast: Live for Halloween
“The NoSleep Podcast” began in 2011 and has been scaring listeners ever since. Beginning with people sharing their frightening tales on the forum website Reddit, “NoSleep” is once again hitting the road and bringing the horror with them. Coming to DC just in time for Halloween, “NoSleep” will share stories never heard on the podcast, accompanied by a live score performed by Brandon Boone. Doors at 6:30 p.m., show at 8 p.m. Tickets $20. The Miracle Theatre: 535 8th St. SE, DC; www.themiracletheatre.com

THURSDAY, OCTOBER 17 – SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 17

Little Shop of Horrors
In this musical comedy written by Howard Ashman with music by Alan Menken, Seymour discovers a strange plant that soon becomes famous. He names the plant after his crush and coworker, Audrey. Just when everything seems to be going right, Seymour discovers that Audrey II can talk and is craving blood. Human blood. Come to Skid Row to see the six-foot plant puppet that is Audrey II. Various dates and times. Tickets $25-$55. Constellation Theatre Company: 1835 14th St. NW, DC; www.constellationtheatre.org

FRIDAY, OCTOBER 18 – SATURDAY, OCTOBER 19

Mystery Science Theater 3000
Named as one of Time Magazine’s “100 Best TV Shows of All-TIME” in 2007, Mystery Science Theatre 3000 is coming live to a theater near you. Currently on the Great Cheesy Movie Circus Tour, creator and original host Joel Hodgson and his robots will be riffing some of the best, worst cheesy movies. This is Hodgson’s final tour, so don’t miss the chance to see the hit Netflix show in person. Various dates and times. Tickets $59-$99. National Theatre: 1321 Pennsylvania Ave. DC; www.thenationaldc.com

SUNDAY, OCTOBER 27

RUPAUL’S DRAG RACE: Werq the World Tour 2019
Get ready to werq! After taking DC by storm last year, The Werq the World is back again. Join your favorite queens from the VH1 series Rupaul’s Drag Race, including Aquaria, Detox and Valentina, who will be pulling out all of the stops in the biggest drag production ever produced. With stunning queens, dancing, lights and projections. This is live drag like you’ve never seen it before. Doors at 6:30 p.m., show at 8 p.m. Tickets $52-$162. The Anthem: 901 Wharf St. SW, DC; www.theanthemdc.com

SATURDAY, OCTOBER 30 – SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 10

What to Send Up When it Goes Down
Coming to four stages in the DMV before it’s Woolly Mammoth run, What to Send Up When it Goes Down is sure to provide several conversation-provoking performances throughout October. Written by the author of Is God Is, Aleshea Harris, this play, pageant, ritual is “first and foremost for black people, but non-black folx are welcome if they are prepared to honor this.” As a response to racialized violence, this story of black empowerment is told through colorful vignettes. Using theatre, music and dance, actors and audience members will come together to reflect, cleanse and heal. Various dates and times. Tickets $20-$29. Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company: 641 D St.
NW, DC; www.woollymammoth.net

Photo: Robyn Von Swank

Maria Bamford on Relatable Material, Consistent Comedy and Bentzen Ball Debut

Maria Bamford is doing well.

Aside from being so funny it’s almost unbearable, the comedian has also made a name for herself discussing the intricacies of daily life with mental illness – perhaps what she is best known for to casual fans and longtime comedy devotees alike.

The fine line between grace and acceptance paired with the absurdity of life in one’s own complicated brain that Bamford toes in her work has elevated her from funny person to relatable human as she carries a comedic torch for mental health issues.

Material for her new special includes marriage and religion – “my favorites,” she notes – and other topics she’s been known to ruminate on. But mental health leaves the spotlight, as she’s been in a place of healing lately.

“I have run out of material,” Bamford says of her mental health-focused work. “That’s a blessing, and yet that’s been a cash cow. I’ve worked my way out of a job, but that’s okay. It’s better to make less money and feel fantastic.”

When someone shares about one specific – and intense – aspect of their lives, it’s easy to box them in and not look outside that one facet. When I ask Bamford if she feels she’s had a hand in the necessary sea change around mental health conversations, she’s quick to remind me of the others who paved the way – Jonathan Winters in the 60s, for example.

While she’s certainly opened channels for better and funnier conversations around the topic today, Bamford has kept busy over the years with plenty of other topics and projects, too. She’s been subject and star of the well-loved Netflix series Lady Dynamite, lent her pipes to voice-over acting, and even done advertising, something she says she will most likely pass on in the future.

“[Ad agencies] pay you a lot of money for a reason: that you will not have strong opinions about things in public. And I love to have strong opinions in public, unfortunately.”

She says there are certain things she chooses not to do anymore.

“I have a semi-retired lifestyle. It’s lots of standup, [which] is a wonderful schedule for somebody who’s on antipsychotics. I get a good 12 hours of sleep every night.”

She has, however, been hard at work on her new special. With some comedians capitalizing on timely topics, there’s something reassuring about seeing a creative force like Bamford focus on consistent themes. It’s proof that some parts of the human condition will never go away – and will always be funny. She says she’ll use the bulk of the material from her new one-hour special at Brightest Young Things’ beloved comedy festival Bentzen Ball later this month.

“I took about three years to write [the special], and I address the usual topics that I’ve always addressed. I don’t seem to change over time, unlike most human beings. Some people say, ‘Oh, I’d like to transform and become new and different and better than I was.’ Not me.”

Though semi-retired, Bamford is still in high demand. She’s been at the top of the Bentzen Ball team’s wish list since the comedy festival’s inaugural run 10 years ago. Bamford quips that it’s probably just been a decade-long scheduling conflict, as she’ll “go anywhere.” She really means that – her display name on Twitter reads, “I’m probably available!”

“I’m an attainable goal of a comedian,” she states. “It’s weird that it hasn’t worked out before because I’m available, usually.”

It might be fate that’s leading her to Lincoln Theatre’s stage to kick off this year’s Bentzen Ball, though. She’ll be joined by her friend and frequent collaborator, fellow comedian Jackie Kashian, who performed at the first Bentzen Ball a decade ago.

“We’ve been friends for over 20 years now,” Bamford says, speaking in great admiration of Kashian’s work. “She started doing comedy a few years before I did in Wisconsin, and she’s always been a headliner in her own right. She’s been on Two Dope Queens and Conan, and she has two great podcasts.”

Bamford speaks with excitement for her Bentzen debut, saying it’ll be unbelievable to fill up the venue.

“If we show up within a half hour of showtime and have our hair combed and are pleasant, I think that that’s really going to be the surprise,” she laughs.

When you take into consideration the cosmic coincidence of Kashian’s prior appearance at Bentzen, Bamford’s relationship with her and the fact that Bamford is perhaps the biggest win for this year’s festival lineup, you could consider their appearance alone an achievement. But given Bamford’s lasting reach – and willingness to share her story openly and hilariously, regardless of what aspect of her story she’s telling – it’s sure to set the tone for an incredible 10th run of the comedy festival.

Maria Bamford kicks off the 10th annual Bentzen Ball with Jackie Kashian on Thursday, October 24 at 6 p.m. at Lincoln Theatre. Tickets are $35. For more on Bentzen, visit www.brightestyoungthings.com/bentzen-ball-2019.
To find more of Bamford’s work, visit www.mariabamford.com.

Lincoln Theatre: 1215 U St. NW, DC; 202-888-0050; www.thelincolndc.com

Photo: Tony Powell

Right to Be Forgotten Sparks Healthy Debate

To err is human. To forgive? Well, that is a lot harder with the Internet around, cataloging our every misstep and reminding us years later of actions we might rather forget.

Derril Lark was 17 when he developed a crush on a girl at school. Awkward and nerdy, he followed her around for three months, causing her stress and trauma before a school official intervened and Lark stopped. That was the end of it until a blog turned Lark into a meme, exaggerating his offenses and making him the posterchild for a male predator. Lark is not free of blame, but neither is the monster that the Internet makes him out to be.

This is the premise of Sharyn Rothstein’s new play Right to be Forgotten, with a world premiere coming to Arena Stage on October 11. When Rothstein, whose previous writing credits include numerous plays and USA Network’s Suits, started researching in 2014, the European Union had just granted its citizens the right to ask tech companies to remove search results related to their name – aptly named the Right to be Forgotten.

“I was so taken by the name of the law itself,” Rothstein says. “It’s so striking and the opposite of what we usually want. I mean, who wants to be forgotten?”

The more Rothstein investigated the issue, the more its complexities surfaced. Who decides what lives online and who should have the power to remove potentially damaging content? Tech companies? The government? You?

“This is a clear case of the technology we’ve created not always working with humanity,” Rothstein continues. “Mistakes we make when we were young that we hopefully learn and grow from can now follow us for the rest of our lives and define us.”

The issue is an especially sticky one in the United States, where the First Amendment guaranteeing free speech is a foundational part of our national identity and where, to date, tech companies have faced minimal government regulations. Where does society draw the line between protecting people’s right to privacy and the right to free speech?

“A lot of discussion comes down to: could we ever have a Right to be Forgotten law in this country that wouldn’t violate the First Amendment?” Rothstein asks hypothetically.

It was these issues that attracted Seema Sueko, deputy artistic director at Arena Stage, to the play.

“As soon as I read it, I knew it was the right match for Arena,” she says. “It deals with such big, complex issues around democracy, freedom of speech and privacy.”

Sueko’s gut told her that she needed to direct the play.

“I love shows that I don’t have all the answers to at a first read.”

Rothstein channels the intricacies of the topic into the fictional story of Lark, who is not meant to be a completely sympathetic protagonist.

“He did a bad thing,” Rothstein says. “There’s no getting around that. But I hope this show highlights all the complexities of both his predicament being stuck as the monster for all time, and the girl that he followed being stuck by the Internet as a victim for all time.”

John Austin, last seen at Arena Stage in Kleptocracy, plays Lark.

“Derril has internalized a lot of guilt for his actions,” Austin says of his character. “He lives with this constant uncertainty of what’s true and what’s untrue because once something is put online, it becomes its own reality.”

Rothstein and Sueko think Right to be Forgotten will generate heated conversations as audiences leave the theater.

“My goal will be that the audience bounces back and forth in their opinion and that they can see, hear and feel the arguments on all sides,” Sueko says.

But the play studiously avoids taking a stand on whether or not the U.S. should enact Right to be Forgotten protections.

“I take every stand in the play,” Rothstein laughs, noting that her characters have strong opinions on all sides of the debate. “What I hope is that the audience comes out of this play having thought about this issue that I don’t think enough of us have thought about in this country.”

Don’t miss Right to be Forgotten at Arena Stage from October 11 to November 10. Tickets start at $40-$95. Learn more at www.arenastage.org.

Arena Stage: 1101 6th St. SW, DC;202-488-3300; www.arenastage.org

Photo: Delvinahair Productions

Letters to Tyson: Neil deGrasse Tyson Talks New Book, Twitter and Society’s Hunger for Science

“Do people write letters anymore? Not much.”

I’m sitting in an office phonebooth talking with arguably the most famous living scientist. At 60 years old, Neil deGrasse Tyson remembers the days when email and social media weren’t the most obvious vehicles for thoughtful discourse with people who followed his work. Instead, the best method was sitting in a room and typing or writing a letter.

“With letters, you get to pause and sit back and think about when someone sits down and composes a question, and they think that my life experience and expertise might illuminate a path they need to choose.”

Some letters required more from Tyson than others, forcing him to learn contextual foundations for which he’d root his answers in or making him dig deep into his own personal background to deliver a well-thought-out opinion, complete with humor and a personal vignette.

He’s been receiving letters for the better part of 30 years, keeping copies of ones he deems entertaining, thoughtful and worth revisiting. His latest book Letters from an Astrophysicist, hitting shelves on October 8, features 100 of his favorite letters – yet another opportunity to learn from one of the most renowned educators on the planet and perhaps in the universe.

With a book release comes a book tour, including a stop at Warner Theatre on October 23. Before reading Tyson’s collection of letters or hearing him speak live, read our conversation with the brilliant scientist.

On Tap: Do people still write letters? I feel like you could have just as easily made a book of your Twitter responses.
Neil deGrasse Tyson: Do people write letters anymore? Not much. The communication channel tends to be Twitter and I’ve considered a Twitter book, but there’s no hurry for that. I put a lot of effort into my tweets, more than people think. I think long and hard to tweet, and it’s a big responsibility because I communicate with a lot of people – nearly 14 million people directly. A tweet triggers a neuron synapses snapshot of the collective brain, because I see people respond. If I say something funny and people laugh, then that works. And if they don’t, then I have to figure out why.

OT: How would you describe the book’s format?
NDT: The letters span a range of 30 years and most of them are from a specific 10-year span, and another set of letters are more open. For example, I wrote an open letter to my extended family and colleagues after I escaped lower Manhattan on 9/11 and was home and witnessed everything that had happened. I wrote a letter to NASA when I turned 60, and I compared and contrasted NASA and my own 60 years of life – that’s the opening of the book. I end the book with a letter to my father, but it’s a eulogy in the form of a letter. So, the book is bookended by letters – not individuals’ letters, but open letters. It’s a combination of all of the above.

OT: What about these letters stood out to you enough that you’d want to print them for readers?
NDT: This book is not, “Let me learn astrophysics,” and that’s not why these people have written to me. You get to share in their angst and see how a scientist and educator replies. Nearly every one of these letters probe people’s attitudes and beliefs and fears. Often scientists are associated with cold, meticulous content. You have to do that in the lab. But when you’re not in the lab, you have these human feelings too.

OT: What kind of letters made the cut? What about this selection proved to create a special narrative?
NDT: What I noticed was, some letters I invested more in my answers than others and it was because the person was coming from a place that deserved more attention than “Yes,” “No” or “Check out this website.” If it was more personal, more introspective, I would devote more energy to my replies. Then I’d finish and say, “You know, this has some good stuff in it.” So I kept a copy. I did that for about 15 or 20 years. There was 500 total that I kept in a folder. These are letters that had a little extra creative dimension to the replies. Culling those to the best 100 of them, that became the book.

OT: When you were looking back on all these letters and personal messages, did you think about how much different it would be if you received or composed these letters as you are now?
NDT: That happens on several levels. The first is, I could compose that sentence better than I could 10 or 20 years ago, so I reserve the right to clarify the sentences [laughs]. My letters are edited for clarity and the people’s letters are edited for length. Generally, I don’t reply to something unless I have researched the subject thoroughly. Often, they’re so well-researched that it’s not likely to be improved later on. I did a lot of research on religion. Why? Because people asked me about it, so I said I couldn’t reply unless I had some foundational knowledge on what the hell I’m talking about. If someone asks me about how God relates to science, I can’t just answer it from a scientific point of view. When you [ask], “Have I grown or evolved?” [the answer is], I evolve in the moment before I reply.

OT: You’re doing the book tour in a ton of places. Does it mean more to you to have these kinds of discussions in DC where national decisions get made by politicians?
NDT: Most public talks I give are not book-based. This little stretch is specific to the book. Generally, when I give talks in DC, my commentary that frames the content or the humor that I lean toward tends to be more DC-oriented. The flavor is definitely a DC flavor, knowing there will be movers and shakers there or an article could be written that could be read by a mover or shaker. Talks are not cookie-cutter in that sense. For example, one of the letters in the book rails against me for advocating for tax funding going toward NASA, so I might bring that up in DC. I might select letters more befitting to that region in the country.

OT: You’ve written several books in the past few years, and you’ve obviously had success with “Star Talk,” your visits on the longform “Joe Rogan Experience,” etc. Have you noticed an uptick in the hunger people have for science, and specifically astrophysics and theoretical physics?
NDT: I wonder if it’s not that the hunger is up, but it’s the ability to reveal that they’re hungry. How could The Big Bang Theory sitcom have been number one for so long? If you look at the list of long-running number one shows, it’s in the top few of that list. So, how did that happen? Where did that come from? I think I am on that landscape as someone who is sharing the joys of science with the public, and I’m delighted to recognize and report that there is a hunger out there. There’s a lot of ways to do it: videos, podcasts, etc.

OT: You’ve had a tremendous amount of success blending your knowledge with pop culture. Do you sometimes feel like you’re one of the first stops people make on their journey to looking into science?
NDT: That’s true, however, I would worry about it if I was the sole driver of this. Look at how many Twitter followers NASA has, or the Instagram followers Nat Geo has. Go look at the Facebook page I f–king love science [Ed. Note: we did, and over 25 million people like it]. Whatever role I’m playing in this landscape, no matter how large it is, there are larger things at play. It would be weird if I was the driving force. My goal is always to get people interested in science, and I’m happy to be a guide to the cosmos. But it’s the science, not the person.

See Neil deGrasse Tyson speak at Warner Theatre on October 23.
Discussion begins at 7:30 p.m., tickets $67.50.

For more about Letters from an Astrophysicist, visit www.haydenplanetarium.org/tyson or follow him on Twitter @neiltyson

Warner Theatre: 513 13th St. NW, DC; 202-783-4000; www.warnertheatredc.com

Photo: Scott Suchman

Ford’s Theater Brings August Wilson’s Masterpiece to Life with Fences

By the end of Fences, August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece now playing at Ford’s Theatre, we know a lot about Troy Maxson: his hard-scrabble Southern childhood, his stint in jail, and his time as a star in baseball’s Negro Leagues. We know that he is a liar, a cheater and sometimes, a thief. We know that he is consumed by bitterness and convinced that life didn’t give him a fair shake.

But what we don’t know is whether or not we like him.

Audiences will find him captivating and hang on his every word of this brilliantly penned play. And just like Troy’s wife Rose, whose years of loyalty Troy spits on with one selfish act, or Troy’s son Cory, whose life Troy derails before it has really started, it’s easy to be drawn into Troy’s orbit, despite its ruinous impact.

Troy Maxson is one of American theater’s great tragic heroes. The success of any production of Fences hinges on finding the right actor to tell the story of this former baseball star who now scrapes by as a sanitation worker in segregated 1950s Pittsburgh. In Ford’s production, Craig Wallace proves himself the ideal performer to fit the role.

As Troy, Wallace portrays a complicated man who holds us spellbound for the nearly three hours he is onstage, entrancing us with every story and monologue. This performance is a crowning achievement in Wallace’s already long and successful career.

Wallace is joined onstage by six other consummate actors as Troy’s friends and family. With director Timothy Douglas (who has directed nine out of the ten plays in August Wilson’s Century Cycle, documenting African American life in each decade of the 20th century), they breathe glorious life into what is some of the most beautiful and natural dialogue ever written by an American playwright.

Erika Rose shines as Rose Maxson, Troy’s wife of 18 years, who grows throughout the play, eventually becoming a hero in her own right. Rose conveys a simmering intensity; when confronted with the truth of her husband’s betrayal, she gives her own share of masterful monologues that are a joy to watch.

Justin Weeks burns as Troy’s youngest son Cory, who grows from frustrated teen to responsible adult before our very eyes. Doug Brown (as Jim Bono), KenYatta Rogers (as Lyons Maxson), Jefferson A. Russell (as Gabriel Maxson), and the two young girls who alternate the role of Raynell Maxson (Janiyah Lucas and Mecca Rogers) all contribute to the production’s success.

Part of the joy – and the sorrow – of Fences lies in watching these characters interact with Troy, at first merely satellites, trapped in his orbit but eventually, finding the strength to launch out on their own, as they retreat from the corrosive effects of his self-destruction and forge their own destinies.

If you haven’t seen Fences before, this production is a great introduction to the genius of Wilson. If you are a seasoned Wilson vet, you will find that Ford’s iteration successfully taps into the pure beauty of Wilson’s work. Through Douglas’s direction, Wilson’s dialogue is so natural, so endearing, his characters so consistently fleshed out, that you immediately feel a kinship with the characters onstage.

Though his character’s lives may be drastically different than yours (and in my case, they are), Wilson’s genius lies in his ability to tap into the universal humanity in us all. The fact that he did so through the lens of African American life that had – until his arrival – been deplorably absent from American stages, makes his accomplishments as a playwright one of the most important in the history of American theater.

Lauren Helpern’s scenic design features a two-story projection of 1950s Hill District Pittsburgh that feels almost too dilapidated and dystopian but, set against the cozy brownstone in which the Maxsons live, clearly drives home the point that Rose – and Troy – worked painstakingly over many years to forge a comfortable home. The soft touches of a flowered curtain poking out of the kitchen window or the shadow of a lone tree falling on the brick rowhouse (lighting by Andrew R. Cissna) hint at Rose’s grit and dedication to her family.

And then, of course, there’s the fence. Troy has been building it throughout the show at Rose’s request. “Some people build fences to keep people out, other people build fences to keep people in,” Troy’s friend Bono tells him near the end of the play.

And that’s one of the great gifts that Ford’s Theatre’s production of Fences offers audiences: The opportunity to reflect on how we, as individuals, react to adversity.

We don’t need to like Troy Maxson, but witnessing his story allows us to ponder his choices and the choices we all face as humans.

August Wilson’s Fences runs at Ford’s Theatre through October 27. Various dates, times and prices. Run time is three hours including one fifteen-minute intermission.

Ford’s Theatre: 511 10th St. NW, DC; 202-347-4833; www.fords.org

Travis McElroy with Clint McElroy // Photo: Erik Westra

Enter The Adventure Zone with Travis McElroy

On Wednesday night, less than a block from the White House, you may run into hundreds of brightly colored and costumed people dressed as elves, beach dwarves, liches (a kind of undead spellcaster), gnomes and humans who look like lumberjacks. Those folks are dressed up, cosplaying, as their favorite characters from “The Adventure Zone,” a wildly popular podcast that showcases its hosts playing different role playing games (RPGs). “The Adventure Zone” started as a one-off Dungeons & Dragons (DnD) adventure and special episode of “My Brother, My Brother and Me,” a comedy advice podcast hosted by three brothers: Justin, Travis and Griffin McElroy.

The three-hour game was so popular that it became its own critically-and-popularly beloved biweekly show (also featuring their dad, Clint, playing) with 120 episodes and millions of downloads under its belt; as well as a graphic novel series whose first two books hit the top of the charts on the New York Times’ Bestsellers list. 

The McElroy family started taking the podcast on the road in 2015, playing Dungeon & Dragons, and now other, pen-and-paper RPG systems in front of audiences of hundreds and thousands; to be rebroadcast later in podcast form. They’ll roll their dice across the stage of DAR Constitution Hall on Wednesday, September 25, playing a yet to be announced system.

Travis, the family’s “middlest” brother, will run the game, or act as “Game Master” (“GM”), for the game in DC after spending much of the podcast’s 120 episodes playing characters like the heroic, axe-wielding bane of trees and robots Magnus Burnsides and the magical, mysterious Aubrey Little. For those who’ve never been to a live podcast taping, especially one that involves the hosts playing games onstage for hours, Travis McElroy wants people to think of it as a show just like any other.

I think it’s the same as any performer; whether you’re talking about improv or musicals or stand-up comedy or any kind of theater,” McElroy explains. “A good performer feeds off the audience and then returns that energy back. We’re not just playing DnD and people are watching. We are putting on a show in which we use role playing games as a springboard, as a prompt.”

“The Adventure Zone” is just one example of how this gaming genre has penetrated the core of mainstream culture after decades spent on the periphery, and in cool basements. Picture the opening scene of Stranger Things. The mechanisms of the game are simple, but vast and expansive, as people use numbers to define their character’s strengths and weaknesses and then interact with their fellow players to create a story based on those character’s actions. 

“One of the nice things about it is, because we work together and because it’s the four of us, not one of us ever has to carry all the load,” McElroy says.

McElroy credits revisions in the rules as allowing things like his show, as well as HarmonQuest, Critical Role and countless other shows and podcasts to thrive in this media environment.

“The mechanics themselves really started focusing on a story,” McElroy says. “That led to this huge upswing in actual play podcasts and streams and led to a lot of interest in it. I think a lot of actual play shows started showcasing to listeners that you can play this for fun and it isn’t all just math and mathematics and pens on paper.”

The way that translates onstage can be difficult at times. As GM, McElroy has to lead his family through the story he’s crafted to last the duration of the live show, including setting up puzzles, fights, interactions with other characters that he does the voices for and narrate all the settings, people and items the characters and the audience encounter. It can be a lot to juggle.

“It’s finding the balance of – this will take two and a half hours – so you don’t want it to be like ‘They’ve solved everything in 45 minutes,’ and you don’t want it to be ‘Whelp, it’s four hours and they’re still not done yet,’” McElroy explains. “Another part of it is will this be interesting? Will there be enough action and story and character that people will like sitting in the audience and watching it? There are some one-off games that we’ve looked at where like ‘This is hilarious, this is such a funny premise, but will it actually contain enough story? Will it actually be enough that someone will be glad they bought a ticket to it?’” 

Part of the joy of listening to and watching “The Adventure Zone” is the dynamics between the three McElroy brothers and their father. When the players are facing down impossible odds, fighting some wicked beast of untold power, the whole thing can derail into a session of family-dinner-table ribbing and familial mockery at the drop of a hat.

There’s a strong pull in that, a common bond of experience that can cut through to someone who might not grasp all the rules, numbers and words flying across stage. It also helps the McElroys keep on track, strangely enough.

“One of the nice things about it is, because we work together and because it’s the four of us, not one of us ever has to carry all the load,” McElroy says. “So that’s one of the things I like playing with my family: You’re never up there alone. Whether it’s in recording or in a live show, if you find yourself without the answer you have three other improvers who are going to help you figure out the answer.”

For those still unsure about seeing a RPG actual play podcast taped live in front of them, think of it like this: going to see the performance is kind of like going to see a comedy improv show, just with more hijinks and hilarity caused by dice rolling and monsters as prompts. Plus, the McElroys’ incredibly inclusive, welcoming familial spirit will make you feel right at home, even as they’re dodging aliens, werewolves, falling rocks or whatever else their brother throws at them. That’s what being in a family is all about. 

For more information on The Adventure Zone podcast and other podcasts the McElroys host, visit TheMcElroy.Family. For information on The Adventure Zone graphic novels, visit MacMillan Books. For tickets to the Become the Monster Tour, visit here.

DAR Constitution Hall: 1776 D St. NW, DC: 202-628-4780; www.dar.org/constitution-hall