Unified Scene Theater

The Unified Scene Theater: Improv and Sketch Comedy Comes to Bloomingdale

The Unified Scene Theater is DC’s newest space fully dedicated to improv and sketch comedy, and a range of other performing arts – comedic monologues, storytelling, and spoken word, to name a few. Since opening its doors in Bloomingdale this August, Unified has offered the local improv community the opportunity to perform most anything – no matter how controversial or edgy.

Husband-and-wife team Shawn and Kathy Baird Westfall decided to open Unified to give performers a creative outlet outside of traditional theater spaces.

“Sure, there are annual festivals here in town and elsewhere that do this, basically invite a theatrically non-traditional production or avant-garde-esque performers and performances to their venues for a few weeks out of the year,” Shawn says. “Our attitude is that this kind of thing should be happening year round.”

Shawn first met Kathy when she took one of his classes at DC Improv, where he taught beginning to advanced-level performers for more than a decade. A year and another improv class later, the two began their life together – and their shared dream of opening a collaborative improv space in the city.

The couple was inspired by DC’s early punk bands and icons who created spaces for music and self-expression, particularly Kathy, who spent her teens as part of the local punk and hardcore scene in 1980s DC, rocking out at legendary local venues like the original 9:30 Club and WUST Radio Music Hall.

The Westfalls thought the focus of independent record label Dischord Records –founded in 1980 for DC’s punk music – was translatable to what they wanted to do: “Give a home to independent improv troupes, a stage to perform on, an audience to watch and money for their talent.”

“We feel the simple, DIY, uncomplicated nature of our theater, and our bold red-and-black logo, reflects that aesthetic: a punk rock club masquerading as an improv comedy – among other things – theater,” Kathy says.

Unified’s simple, edgy, punk vibe and intimate space has attracted not only the local improv community but also the couple’s neighbors in Bloomingdale. The Westfalls, who live just a block-and-a-half from their theater, say the feedback from the neighborhood has been over-the-top positive.

“I for one am gratified by the response I’ve received from those who’ve performed in it,” Shawn says. The Unified co-founder attributes this in part to the space itself, a complete 180 from the cavernous, high-ceilinged setup of other local theaters.

“There simply is no substitute for the visceral experience of being right there with the performers as they make discoveries in the moment, where you get the feeling that absolutely anything can happen.”

Look for a jam-packed calendar of full weekend improv, sketch, and other shows – and even a few exhibits featuring the works of local visual artists in January.

The Unified Scene Theater: 80 T St. NW, DC;  www.unifiedscenetheater.com

A Night Alive
Michael Tolaydo (Maurice), Edward Gero (Tommy), and Katie deBuys (Aimee). Photo by Cheyenne Michaels.

A Night Alive Transcends Happiness and Loneliness at Round House Theatre

Set in 2013 Ireland, A Night Alive, written by Irish playwright Conor McPherson focuses on a man trying to survive hard times. The role of  Tommy is  played  by Edward Gero, an experienced actor who is a mainstay in the Washington area who most recently played Justice Antonin Scalia in The Originalist.

Tommy is a partially employed middle aged man living in a makeshift apartment in his uncle’s house.  He works odd jobs with his dimwitted friend Doc, whom he is like a father to. Tommy previously owned his own business but has lost it along with his family, a wife and two kids, from whom he is now estranged. One night Tommy meets Aimee, a battered woman , decides to help her and from there all his trouble starts.

The play shows desperate, down and out people who are struggling and barely getting by. Placed in the aftermath of the economic downturn, the characters struggle with depression, poverty, thoughts of suicide and abuse. The characters are all well-meaning people who are struggling financially, and who are working to create their own patchwork family.  At first these issues are addressed in a light hearted way with jokes and humor then, story takes a darker turn. The audience begins the play laughing along with the characters about the state of their lives and then it shifts into sadness for the characters and their limits.

The entire play takes place in Tommy’s apartment with the characters coming and going, in and out. The apartment is grimy and overcrowded , a depiction of Tommy’s life throughout the play. The scenes can at times seem disjointed and the change in tone can be jarring. “All I can say is my work is a battle against loneliness,” said, McPherson. “It’s an acknowledgement that we all have fundamental loneliness even though you may not be alone.”

The Night Alive is running until November 13 at RoundHouse Theatre in 4545 East-West Hwy, Bethesda, MD 20814. For tickets and more information, visit their website www.roundhousetheatre.org.

Oliver at Arena Stage Photo courtesy Arena Stage

Arena Stage’s Contemporary Take on Oliver!

Arena Stage invites audiences to experience modern-day London, transforming Tony Award-winning musical Oliver!  from the days of Charles Dickens to 2015. Under the direction of Artistic Director Molly Smith, the classic story of young orphan Oliver Twist becomes a commentary on class disparity and violence in England’s capital today.

“We’re definitely holding up the mirror to the life we’re living today and telling people that this is still happening,” says Helen Hayes Award winner and Takoma Park native Eleasha Gamble of London’s exceedingly high poverty rate. “This is still the world we’re living in, and not as much has changed as we all think and hope it has.”

Gamble, back at Arena for the third time, plays Nancy, a member of the very same gang of street urchins and pickpockets that takes Oliver under its collective wing. Under the thumb of the very cruel Bill Sikes, one of gang leader Fagin’s associates, Nancy begins to care for Oliver as if he is her own.

Gamble says there’s an interesting duality to her character, who she first played as a freshman in high school. She now credits the role as the “light bulb” moment that launched her acting career.

“She’s clearly this gang member and could easily be looked at as a bad guy, so to speak, but then there’s such a wonderful heart and grace to her that it’s a joy to discover all of the different levels and nooks and crannies of the character.”

The actress plays opposite nine-year-old Jake Heston Miller as the title character, who she says has surprised the entire cast with his intelligence. The Warrenton, Va. actor is wowing everyone during scene readings, holding his own with the impressive roster of artists.

“He’s great,” says Gamble. “He’s really present onstage. I look forward to seeing his growth and where we end up.”

Don’t miss Oliver! from October 30 to January 3 on Arena’s four-sided Fichandler Stage. Tickets range from $64 to $119, but students can receive 35 percent off of regular ticket prices, and theatergoers 30 and under can purchase Pay-Your-Age tickets. Check the Arena Stage website for more details.

Arena Stage: 1101 6th St. SW, DC; 202-554-9066; www.arenastage.org.

Kiss Me Kate

The DC Shakespeare Experience Kiss Me Kate

The nation’s capital is full of Bard-themed productions this fall, from Kiss Me, Kate – the famous musical retelling of Taming of the Shrew – to monthly productions of Shakespeare’s plays at local bars around the tri-state area. On Tap caught up with the great minds behind these productions, so read on to get an inside look at our city’s upcoming nods to Shakespeare.

STC’s thirty-something Associate Artistic Director Alan Paul puts his own spin on Tony Award-winning Broadway musical Kiss Me, Kate, at Shakespeare Theatre Company (STC) this month through the New Year. Known for his directorial range at STC, from 2013’s slapstick comedy A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum to this spring’s poignant Man of La Mancha, Paul has a real talent for capturing the essence of a musical and drawing audiences into the story. With this modern take on Shakespeare’s comedy about a husband’s “taming” of his hot-tempered wife, Paul is pulling out all of the stops.

“This will be a lavish Broadway-style musical,” Paul says. “We have a big chorus with lots of tap dancers. There are some huge production numbers, like ‘Too Darn Hot,’ where the ensemble will dance their feet off.”

The musical follows a feuding ex-husband and ex-wife in the late 1940s starring in a production of The Taming of the Shrew together. Paul says he wants to capture the romance and magic of what goes on behind the curtain, because who doesn’t want to know what really happens backstage?

Actors Doug Sills and Christine Sherrill star as Fred Graham (playing Petruchio) and Lilli Vanessi (playing Katherina). The duo is making their STC debut, and Paul says they will make a delicious and fiery onstage couple.

Kiss Me, Kate combines the director’s two great passions – musical comedy and Shakespeare – and gives him the opportunity to take audiences by storm with a “sexy show full of young people.”

“It’s frisky and fresh, and a deeply romantic night at the theatre.”

Kiss Me Kate runs from November 17 to January 3 in STC’s Sidney Harman Hall, with standard tickets starting at $44. If you’re under 35, catch a performance for $25 during Young Prose Nights on December 2 or 11, and enjoy a libation and pre- or post-performance soiree.

Sidney Harmon Hall: 610 F St. NW, DC; 202-547-3230; www.shakespearetheatre.org

Shakespeare in the Pub

The Bard Imbibes Shakespeare in the Pub

For a different spin on Shakespeare, check out Shakespeare in the Pub performances around the DC area. These libation-friendly theatrical events are the brainchild of John Stange and Kelsey Meiklejohn, who approached The Limerick Pub in Wheaton several years ago about performing their favorites by the Bard while imbibing.

“A good half of the point is just actors blowing off steam,” Stange says. “Screwing around with the classics over beers is fun as it is. Doing it in public where we can make spectacles of ourselves? Catnip.”

The other half? Stange says Shakespeare in the Pub is a gateway drug to live theatre for people who think they hate live theatre, creating a truly visceral experience for audiences.

“The performance happens in and around the audience. The rustic characters and the sex jokes are front-and-center. We break the fourth wall and ad lib when something’s not working. Everyone’s liquored up and uninhibited.”

For Stange and his fellow producers, there’s a social barrier that they’re all about lowering “until it’s barely a tripping hazard.” Everyone in the group is active in DC’s small to medium-sized professional theatres, and Stange says anyone who has the chops to cold read classical text and is comfortable thinking on their feet “is welcome to the party.”

Shakespeare in the Pub performances run monthly at The Limerick and neighborhood bars The Pinch in Columbia Heights and Evening Star Café in Del Ray. Shows usually run about 90 minutes, and actors embrace an improvisational style that Stange says can be synonymously described as  “drunken anarchy.”

“I use my family as a litmus test, most of whom don’t necessarily think of themselves as ‘theatre people’ or think they ‘get’ Shakespeare,” Stange says. “I want to trick those guys into having a good time. Get ‘em hooked, then maybe they discover some of the many companies in town doing brand new contemporary plays or the Women’s Voices Theater Festival or Capital Fringe.”

Check out a leather and rock n’ roll version of Much Ado (or Abrew) About Nothing with Nu Sass Production’s Angela Kay Pirko at the helm at The Limerick on November 16 or Grain of Sand Theatre’s Carl Brandt Long – with a penchant for weird mythology and ghost stories – directing Macbeth at Evening Star on December 7. Go towww.shakespeareinthe.pub to learn more about upcoming performances.

Criss Angel

Criss Angel & The Supernaturalists Coming to Warner Theatre

It’s a tough love approach for the world of magic, from one of its biggest stars, who also happens to be one of its biggest fans.

Speaking about his new creation, “The Supernaturalists,” magician Criss Angel said he wanted to showcase a fresh take on the traditional magic show.

“I think for me, it’s taking magic and giving it a good kick in the ass, because magic has always been perceived as this kind of hokey, cheesy novelty.”

Putting a modern spin on an age-old art has been Angel’s style since he burst on to the scene with his “Mindfreak” TV special in 2002 and then his TV series for the A&E Network starting in 2005. The show was a hit and made Angel a household name internationally. He now performs daily at the Luxor in Las Vegas, where his show “Criss Angel Believe”—a coproduction with Cirque du Soleil—has been in residence since its 2008 premiere. On top of that, he has a second TV show on the Spike network, and a “Mindfreak Live” touring show that he does when “Believe” is on breaks. Angel, it seems, doesn’t like to rest.

“I work about an average of 16 or 17 hours a day, six days a week,” he said, “and I take a half day off once a week. I work constantly.”

Angel said he works so much in order to maintain the achievements that took him so long to realize.

“It took me 18 years to become an overnight success,” he joked.

His newest project, “The Supernaturalists,” is an endeavor he’s been working on for ten years, featuring nine magicians from around the world, handpicked by Angel.

“I kind of scoured the globe for the best of the best,” he said, “and I got people from Paris, France, a champion card manipulator, Stefan, who’s just brilliant. I went to Colombia and got Johnny Dominguez, who’s just unbelievable with these dogs and what he can do with them. From South Africa, the greatest mentalist of all time, Banachek.”

The show also features Spaniard Adrian Vega, The Great Maestro from Mexico, Fifi from the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Americans Landon Swank, Krystyn and Spencer Horsman. Horsman, an escape artist, has been seen in two viral videos recently, narrowly escaping death while performing “Submerge,” an illusion Angel created for him in which he’s shackled inside a water-filled glass cube, suspended high above the ground. Angel said that risk is part of his brand of cutting edge magic.

“A lot of these demonstrations,” he said, “because they really push the envelope so greatly, and they’re revolutionary, they have an inherent great sense of danger, and they really do have danger. So with Spencer, twice he got caught. And I was there thankfully and saw the tell tale signs and pulled him out.”

Angel won’t usually be at The Supernaturalists shows in the flesh, but as creator, he has had a hand in all aspects of the show. He hosts the two-hour performance through video screens, and will Skype in live to each show. He also promises to make surprise live appearances when his schedule allows, but he said the nine magicians he picked don’t need his help to perform their amazing illusions.

“I was able to find these people who were really open minded,” he said, “and have the talents and the chops to be able to pull it off, and they are doing just an incredible job.”

If you go, Angel promises a good time.

“You’ll see,” he said, “who I think are the nine most mind blowing magicians in the world, and you’ll see an incredible show that will delight, thrill, and excite the entire family.”

Criss Angel presents The Supernaturalists at  Warner Theatre Tuesday, October 20 and Wednesday, October 21, 8 p.m. Tickets and info at www.warnertheatredc.com. To learn more about Criss Angel and The Supernaturalists visit www.crissangel.com/the-supernaturalists.

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

Animal at Studio Theatre

Studio Theatre Presents World Premiere of Thought-Provoking Play Animal

Award-winning playwright Clare Lizzimore’s newest play comes to Studio Theatre this fall as part of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival, a celebration of the works of female playwrights making their debut in theaters around the DC area. Lizzimore’s Animal explores the struggles of domestic life through the lens of Rachel, a woman with a solid marriage and career. But something is making her restless, and she can’t quite put her finger on it.

Animal follows Rachel as she navigates this range of unsettling emotions, taking advice from her husband and psychiatrist. She flirts with different ideas for how to make sense of and grapple with the feelings bubbling up inside of her, from positive thinking to medication to spontaneous behavior.

Lizzimore was inspired to write the dark comedy after meeting and speaking with a number of women who were having similar experiences to Rachel’s.

“It seemed to me the different kinds of pressures on these women and what drove their behavior was not fully understood, and that felt [like] an interesting area to explore,” she says.

The playwright has felt many of the same frustrations about the world that Rachel encounters, and hopes that audiences will enjoy the play’s humor while also feeling compassion for the struggling protagonist – and maybe even pondering her predicament.

“I think relating to characters onstage is less important than understanding them. Theater works best when it’s not that the character onstage is like the audience, but that the audience begins to understand and empathize with the choices of a character who on the surface may not be like them at all.”

Lizzimore will also participate in the festival’s Playwrights as Hybrid Artists event at Studio Theatre on Oct. 3 as part of a panel of artists who will speak about their active professional lives in more than one area of theater. She says it will hopefully provide real insight into a how piece of work is crafted.

“And crucially, I hope it will also demystify what can seem really impenetrable about where to start in the industry, or how to create work, or even just be an opportunity to appreciate a behind-the-scenes type exposé of how we all kick-start ideas.”

Animal, directed by Gaye Taylor Upchurch, will run at Studio Theatre until Oct. 25. Tickets for the production are $20-$40.

STUDIO THEATRE: 1501 14th St. NW, DC; 202-232-3300; www.studiotheatre.org

VelocityDC Dance Festival
Photo credit: Joshua Sugiyama

VelocityDC Dance Festival

Don’t miss the seventh annual VelocityDC Dance Festival at Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Sidney Harman Hall from Oct. 15 to 17. The popular festival sells out every year, with tickets at only $18 per show and featuring world-renowned dance companies and artists all based in the DC area.

VelocityDC’s performances run the gamut from ballet to modern dance, and incorporate works from around the globe – Sri Lankan and Indian dances, and even African stepping, to name a few. Each work is under 12 minutes, giving audiences the opportunity to experience different types of dance.

“It’s truly a portal experience for audience members regardless of their knowledge of dance,” says Samantha Pollack, Washington Performing Arts’ Director of Programming.

Washington Performing Arts teams up with Shakespeare Theatre Company, Dance Metro DC, and the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities each year to bring together returning artists and talented newcomers. This year, the festival welcomes 11 new companies out of the 30 that will present their works.

“It’s truly exciting to be able to highlight such a wonderful mix of companies and give opportunities to more groups,” Pollack says.

The 2015 lineup includes Step Afrika!’s “Nxt/Step,” hip-hop fused with video projections and stepping; the Washington Ballet’s “Juanita y Alicia,” choreographed by Septime Webre and set to the music of the Buena Vista Social Club; and Mayalaworks, a new entry presenting the solo work “La Migra” that “juxtaposes a playful soundtrack of Parisian-inspired accordion music against an exploration of personal experiences with immigration.”

Prior to each performance, site-specific works will take place immediately at the main entrance to Sidney Harman Hall and in the windows on the second level, so that ticketholders and F Street pedestrians alike can catch a glimpse of what’s going on. The festival also features two free RAMP! performances on Oct. 15 and 17 at 6:15 p.m. in the Forum at the Harman.

“[RAMP! performances] are an intimate way for companies to share their works and have the opportunity to discuss them with an audience and moderator,” Pollack says. “One RAMP! is focused on emerging companies, and one is focused on works in progress.”

Learn more about the VelocityDC Dance Festival at www.velocitydc.org.

SIDNEY HARMAN HALL: 610 F St. NW, DC; 202-547-3230; www.shakespearetheatre.org

Vanessa Hudgens
Vanessa Hudgens as Gigi Photo credit: Matthew Murphy

The New Golden Age of Hollywood: Vanessa Hudgens in Gigi

Vanessa Hudgens is making her Broadway debut at the Kennedy Center through February 12 as the iconic Gigi in this classic musical about a young woman who chooses her own destiny. The 26-year-old actress and songstress, whose film repertoire ranges from the High School Musical franchise to Harmony Korine’s campy Spring Breakers, says playing Gigi is just bringing it back to basics for her.

“I feel so comfortable and at home,” she says of her role in Gigi. “I just feel like everything is right in the world when I’m doing this. It’s a really reassuring feeling.”

Hudgens is smitten with her character, a bold teenager preparing for life as a courtesan during the Belle Époque in Paris under the guidance of her grandmother, Mamita Alvarez (played by actress Victoria Clark). But when Gigi meets dashing bachelor Gaston (played by actor Corey Cott), she realizes that she wants more from life than to be someone’s mistress.

As Gaston falls in love with Gigi and prepares an offer for Mamita to take her as his mistress, Gigi challenges him to consider a different path for them – one that could lead to a committed relationship and perhaps even marriage.

“I think that it’s really empowering for audiences to see our characters go through such a big change,” Hudgens says of the love-struck pair. “They start off as one thing and then turn into something else – a truer version of themselves.”

The actress says that the musical opens with Gigi as a young girl pressured to live her life a certain way, but who ultimately decides that she doesn’t want to be what everyone else wants her to be.

“She creates her own rules and finds her own happiness. And I think that’s a really good message to remind everyone: Don’t let others tell you who to be. You just do you because that’s how you’re going to find your truth and your happiness.”

Hudgens can relate to this personal journey. As a teen sensation who first began her career in musical theater at eight years old, the actress has spent nearly two decades learning how to be the author of her own narrative. She says that Gigi knows what she wants and just goes for it, and that reminds Hudgens of herself in many ways.

“That’s how I try to live my life,” she says. “I always say that I can’t live my life through other people’s eyes because then it would leave me very unhappy. And you only get one shot at life, so I try to just live every day as my truest self and that’s how Gigi is.”

There have been many incarnations of French novelist Colette’s Gigi, most notably the original 1951 Broadway production that put Audrey Hepburn on the map and the award-winning 1958 film directed by Vincente Minnelli (Liza’s dad, Judy Garland’s ex-husband, and the man behind some of the most memorable musicals in the Golden Age of Hollywood, most notably Meet Me in St. Louis and An American in Paris.)

Though Gigi has taken a 40-year hiatus from Broadway, this newly adapted production of the musical directed by Eric Schaeffer remains a timeless story of standing up for your own beliefs, even if that means pushing against the grain.

“I think this is a very powerful story,” Hudgens says. “Even though it was done so long ago, it’s still so relevant in this modern day and age to empower people to find their own way and not be held back by social confinement.”

Along with a captivating storyline, Gigi features a stunning collection of songs – the 1973 Broadway production won the Tony Award for Best Score – and incredible costumes reminiscent of turn-of-the-20th-century European glamour. Hudgens describes the musical’s aesthetic as awe-inspiring, and credits costume designer Catherine Zuber with making audiences wish they had lived in such a fashionable era.

“Everyone carries themselves with such a regal aesthetic,” she says of the full cast in costume. “And it’s just really, really wonderful to see.”

The actress’s favorite moment of rehearsing for Gigi was on her first day in the theater with her fellow cast members, who she affectionately describes as a group of seasoned veterans that have become like family to her.

“We had our costumes on,” she says, “and we were just sitting in this space with all of our lights and sets. [I was] looking around and seeing these people who I’ve fallen in love with looking like the most beautiful versions of themselves, and just knowing that we’re about to embark on this journey together. It gave me butterflies.”

Hudgens chatted with On Tap before opening night, and though experiencing some normal pre-performance jitters, she opened up about how amazing this opportunity has been for her both professionally and personally.

“[Gigi] has honestly been one of the most fulfilling things I’ve done in a while. And once we get audiences in here, I’m sure I’m going to be on cloud nine.”

Gigi runs from January 16 to February 12 at the Kennedy Center, and will move to Broadway this spring. Tickets to Gigi run $45-$150. If you’re 18-30, join the Kennedy Center’s MyTix program to receive discount offers and free ticket giveaways.

Kennedy Center: 2700 F St. NW, DC; 800-444-1324; www.kennedy-center.org

Brian Quinn
Impractical Jokers courtesy of True Public Relations

The Impractical Jokers: Talking with Brian Quinn

Brian Quinn is a member of The Tenderloins a comedy troupe featuring four high school friends from Staten Island, New York – Sal Vulcano, Joe Gatto, James Murray and Brian Quinn. As a creator, executive producer, writer, and star of truTV’s show, Impractical Jokers, Quinn is a busy guy. Currently on tour with truTV Presents The Impractical Jokers Tour Featuring The Tenderloins On Tap caught up with the comedian to get the lowdown on the upcoming DC show.

On Tap: What would you say has been the pivotal moment for The Tenderloins as far as getting on the map or getting to the next level?
Brian Quinn: Well you know, we’ve been working for years and years but the point when things really started to get moving was when we won that NBC contest “It’s Your Show” which was a kind of comedy contest and we won the grand prize which was like $100,000 that got us the attention of some agents and producers and that’s where we met the agents we’re with today. They kind of helped us with our career but if I had to say it would be that contest.

OT: Where do you get the courage to go out and pull these practical jokes on complete strangers?
BQ: (laughs) I mean Geez Louise I’ve never thought of it as being courageous or anything, it’s mainly the thing of; if you don’t do it the punishment is going to be much much worse and if you do do it then you get to come up with the ways to torture your friends directly.

OT: So you guys are very competitive?
BQ: Yes, we have to be, or else you’ll look like a chump.

OT: What is it like touring and having a show with your high school friends?
BQ: It’s great, it’s like working together basically seven days a week which is, if it wasn’t guys that I had been friends with this long it would be hard, it would just be horrible to be around them like husbands and wives aren’t around each other as much as we are. So it’s great, it’s a lot of fun and we have these moments where we look at each other and say “I cannot believe we’re getting paid to do this” So it’s great, I don’t think I would enjoy it if I wasn’t doing it with these guys.

OT: What should the audience expect from your show at the Warner?
BQ: We’re going to make fun of Murray a lot, a lot on stage yeah. (laughs) I’m looking forward to the Warner very much, I can’t wait. But other than that we have videos, hidden camera bits we couldn’t show on TV, we tell stories from the set, we show some behind the scenes videos. It’s a lot of fun because nobody knows what to expect like how it’s going to translate to the stage but I think we’ve done a good job of keeping the spirit of Impractical Jokers, just not the technical reality of it.

Check out the Impractical Jokers at Warner Theater October 4 at Warner Theater.

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