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Kathryn Tkel (Emmy) and Holly Twyford (Nora) in A Doll’s House, Part 2 // Photo: Lilly King

A Doll’s House Part 2 Offers Unique Characters Arcs In Round House Sequel

The radiantly captivating Kathryn Tkel lends a tearful and droll performance as Emmy in Round House Theatre’s DC premiere of A Doll’s House, Part 2, showing at the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre.

Written by Lucas Hnath in 2017, A Doll’s House, Part 2 resumes 15 years after protagonist Nora, played by Holly Twyford, forswears varying degrees of commitment to achieve her version of love; freedom.

Emmy is the youngest child of Nora and in the original A Doll’s House, written in 1879 by Henrik Ibsen, she is little more than a prop in the background. However, as a young adult, she provides a thoughtful voice, often challenging her mother’s perspective on life.

“You’ll learn from Emmy that everyone has their opinion of marriage and people are willing to stand up for their world view, whether or not it aligns with others,” Tkel purports. “There’s something about a younger woman speaking up that makes this conversation deeply important to witness.”

The characters in A Doll’s House, Part 2 are few in number, but prove powerful in the story. Including three self-identifying women and one man, the cast produces an emotional tale full of self-reflection and self-actualization. Tkel stands tall among giants, as she supports other characters played by DC notables like the aforementioned Twyford and Craig Wallace, as Torvald.

Before the performance, the main question for me was how does Tkel bring so much to the table while surrounded by veterans of the craft.

“I see many parallel narratives as a theater practitioner working on the play and as a character,” she says. “These actors and actresses have a longer history of working together, and I am the youngest actress and this is my first time working with these artists. Their characters were in the A Doll’s House.”

“Whereas my character, Emmy, is very much so removed. I have to think about how Emmy’s voice is different in the story and how she herself is different in the room,” she continues. “It’s freeing coming from a different place than others. You have more freedom to have a different take because you don’t know it’s different.”

The predominantly female cast brilliantly addresses issues found in the mid-19th century still felt today. The barriers circumventing women’s equality and independence underscore the humor that makes this play a quality hit.

“[There’s] room for women to have different opinions on stage and in the story, discussing their ideas about marriage and what it means to be a woman,” Tkel gleams.

It’s an eclectic collection of empowering perspectives that will cause the audience to question where their loyalties lie within the conundrum of gender identity and gender roles.

“It’s a very exciting play. [A] play everyone will have at stake in because it is about marriage, divorce, agency and independence for women and men,” Tkel explains.  

Further noting the very complicated societal dynamics layered with the necessary levels of vulnerability, Part 2 annihilates the boundaries of female and male normative behaviors. But where do the men factor in? How will they respond to the performance?

“I think men will like the play. Through Nora’s husband, Torvald, the writer has a lot to say about what society and women may want from men.”

Torvald, played by critically acclaimed actor, Craig Wallace, offers a strong masculine take on love and commitment, showcasing an uncommon vulnerable side.

“The play absolutely stands on its own and you’ll get so much from it,” Tkel encourages. “We’ve all had relationships and family. Whatever your history is, you will pick up pretty quickly that Nora is returning to territory that she used to be in, in a very different fashion.”

“Because the subject matter is so engaging, your own personal feeling about loyalty love, commitment and family will make you question your own view structure.”

A Doll’s House, Part 2 is simply relatable and as Tkel puts it: “Ripe for the picking.”

Round House Theatre’a A Doll’s House, Part 2 runs at Lansburgh Theatre through June 30. Tickets are $50-$61 and can be purchased at here.

Lansburgh Theatre: 450 7th St. NW, DC; 202-547-1122; www.roundhousetheatre.org

Stage and Screen: April 2019

THROUGH SUNDAY APRIL 28

Mosaic Theater Company ‘s Native Son
The infamous streets of Southside Chicago set the scene in this dramatic, gripping production of Native Son. Adapted from Richard Wright’s legendary novel, Native Son tells the story of Bigger Thomas. When Bigger gets a well-paying job as a wealthy businessman’s driver, a series of unfortunate episodes lead to tragic consequences. With the original version set in the 1930s, this modern adaptation incidentally reveals the deep-rooted history of poverty in Chicago. Various dates and times. Tickets $20-$35. Atlas Performing Arts Center: 1333 H St. NE, DC; www.atlasarts.org

THROUGH SATURDAY, APRIL 20

The Peculiar Patriot
Liza Jessie Peterson was a teacher at the notorious Rikers Island prisons for 18 years. Inspired by her experiences, Peterson brings her one-woman show to the stage, exploring the effects of incarceration on communities and a broken system that perpetuates inequality. Her character Betsy LaQuanda Ross, a self-proclaimed “peculiar patriot,” makes frequent trips to penitentiaries, visiting her imprisoned family and friends in this funny and fiercely provocative show. Various dates and times. Tickets $14-$29. Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company: 641 D St. NW, DC; www.woollymammoth.net

SUNDAY, APRIL 7

The Sleeping Beauty
The famed Russian National Ballet is coming to the DMV, performing the timeless classic ballet The Sleeping Beauty. With choreography from ballet master Marius Petipa and compositions by the incomparable Tchaikovsky, this performance is sure to be a grand production. Founded in the late 1980s, the Russian National Ballet emerged in the Soviet transitional period of Perestroika. Ever since, the company has been dedicated to sharing its command of classic ballet with the world. Show starts at 2 p.m., tickets $34-$56. George Mason University Center for the Arts: 4373 Mason Pond Dr. Fairfax, VA; http://cfa.gmu.edu

TUESDAY, APRIL 9

Bob Saget
Few comedians have succeeded to crossover in the entertainment world as well as Bob Saget. Best known for his portrayal of Danny Tanner on ABC’s Full House, the versatile Saget has enjoyed an illustrious career. Nonetheless, he is and always was a comedian first. His stand-up is not what you would expect from America’s favorite dad – and with good reason: he’s not. Stepping out of the Full House shadow hasn’t been easy, but that’s exactly what Saget hopes to do in this not-so-family-friendly comedy performance. Show starts at 8 p.m., tickets $45. Sixth & I: 600 I St. NW, DC; www.sixthandi.org

SATURDAY, APRIL 13

Chelsea Handler
Known for her hilariously blunt delivery and bold blue humor, Chelsea Handler is switching it up for her upcoming Sit-Down Comedy Tour. Handler kicks off her tour in April with the release of her new memoir Life Will Be the Death of Me. In a rare display of vulnerability, she writes introspectively about childhood trauma, therapy, activism and more. The show will feature true stories from her book in an honest, stripped-down conversation. But don’t worry – her emotional anecdotes will only accompany the deeply inappropriate jokes audiences know and love her for. Show starts at 8 p.m., tickets $85-$145. Warner Theatre: 513 13th St. NW, DC; www.warnertheatredc.com

WEDNESDAY, APRIL 24 – MONDAY, APRIL 29

The Who’s Tommy
In celebration of the 50th anniversary of The Who’s legendary debut album, The Kennedy Center’s Broadway Center Stage presents rock musical The Who’s Tommy. Starring Riverdale’s Casey Cott, Tony Award winner Christian Borle and Hamilton’s Mandy Gonzalez, the incredibly talented cast is not likely to disappoint. This semi-staged concert production boasts music and lyrics by The Who’s own Pete Townshend. Various dates and times. Tickets $69-$219. The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts: 2700 F St. NW, DC; www.kennedy-center.org

FRIDAY, APRIL 26 – THURSDAY, JUNE 2

Jubilee
From acclaimed playwright and director Tazewell Thompson comes an inspirational tribute performance based on the world-famous Fisk Jubilee Singers. The renowned African American acapella group broke enormous racial barriers in the late 19th century, funding the education of newly freed slaves and performing across the globe. The performance includes popular spirituals like “Wade in the Water,” “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.” Various dates and times. Tickets $76-$125. Arena Stage: 1101 6th St. SW, DC; www.arenastage.org

TUESDAY, APRIL 30 – WEDNESDAY, JUNE 26

Spunk
Based on three short stories by Harlem Renaissance author Zora Neale Hurston and adapted by Tony Award winner George C. Wolfe, Spunk combines elements of storytelling, music and dance. This lively production promises to entertain audiences with spirited characters and tales of love, jealousy and revenge. Set in the countryside, Spunk also depicts the African American experience in the early 20th century. Various dates and times. Tickets $40-$85. Signature Theatre: 4200 Campbell Ave. Arlington, VA; www.sigtheatre.org

Photo: Tony Powell

Female-Empowered Vanity Fair on the Complexities of Humanity & Transcendence of Gender

With few exceptions, it’s music to a journalist’s ear when an interviewee says, “You’re asking my favorite question.” But it’s just icing on the cake when your subject is a feminist playwright whose focus is reclaiming female narratives, and you strike a chord that leads to a thoughtful reflection on gender equity in theatre, driving social change through the arts, and breaking down the walls between millennial audiences and the classics.

“I don’t believe that classics deserve to be museum pieces or laid in some beautiful, unmoving grave,” Kate Hamill tells me. “I think they should be able to run around, and we should be able to draw on those altars with crayon and see what they mean to us.”

Hamill’s interpretation of Vanity Fair, on Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Stage through the end of March, is the only female-written stage adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray’s epic 1600-page novel. When she started toying with the idea of reclaiming the 1840s text for a 2018 audience and was told it couldn’t be done, she accepted the challenge head on.

“I’m a bit of a brat,” she says laughing, “so the minute someone says, ‘You can’t do that,’  I’m like, ‘I’m going to do it.’”

The playwright creates a 12-year portal into the lives of friends Becky Sharp and Amelia Sedley, from when they graduate school at 18 to becoming grown women with children at 30. As the pair navigates their own individual paths in climbing the social ladder within a patriarchal society, Hamill tears down the archetypes of good girl versus bad girl and shows audiences that neither woman is perfect nor particularly condemnable. In fact, women are just human beings like everyone else.

“It’s imaginative and a spectacle, but rooted in truth so you’re not left with just a show,” actress Rebekah Brockman, who plays Becky, says of Hamill’s work. “There’s a pulse behind it and human beings behind it.”

Brockman says there’s a gradual grounding of reality that happens over the course of Becky and Amelia’s friendship as the two experience major milestones together, and credits Hamill with giving the characters more depth.

“You can’t be too quick to judge someone because there’s a reason people make bad decisions. There’s a reason people act the way they do.”

Brockman and Maribel Martinez, who plays Amelia, wax philosophical on the topic across the table from me, finishing each other’s sentences as eloquent phrases pour out of them.

“There’s more to be found in humanity,” Martinez says.

“More complexity,” Brockman continues.

The actresses are elated to be working together on a Hamill play, a feeling intensified by the fact that Shakespeare Theatre’s production is truly a feminist work. The director, Jessica Stone, rounds out the powerhouse female talent at the helm of Vanity Fair.

“I do think it’s really heartening that places like Shakespeare Theatre, which is dedicated largely to classical work, is producing so much work directed by women and made by women,” Hamill says.

Brockman and Martinez share the playwright’s vision for shaping their characters to be more multidimensional and creating a storyline that encourages empathy rather than judgment from the audience.

“I wanted to create a play which challenges you over and over again to challenge your own judgment, because I think when you judge these women it says more about you than it does about them,” Hamill says. “It’s really important to bring that story to DC.”

She hopes that by shifting the narrative to focus on how the women’s bond strengthens over time, audiences will see how Becky and Amelia are able to inch toward defeating the patriarchal system they live within. The playwright is also eager to do away with gender constructs onstage; many of her works promote gender fluidity.

“I’m interested in not only breaking down arbitrary gender roles, but also in creating more interesting work for female artists – I’m always happy to see a woman in a man’s role,” she says with a chuckle. “When you’re an actress, it’s nice to be asked to stretch in that way.”

Hamill played Becky in the original production in New York, giving her unique insight into how she envisions the story unfolding onstage. The current leads are in lockstep with the playwright, describing theatre as an agent for change. Martinez and Brockman say the gender switches in the production highlight the theme of fluidity in companionship, in all relationships even, that we all experience when the curtain closes and we return to reality.

The topic that seems to bond these three artists more than any other we cover in what are truly meaningful, fascinating conversations to me as a woman and lover of the arts is female empowerment in theatre; giving women a seat at the table in leadership roles is what will ultimately make change. Hamill notes that though there are statistically more women than men in theatre school, fast-forward 20 years and of those former students, significantly more men are offered lead roles and directorial opportunities.

“I’m not saying every female story filtered through a male gaze is a bad thing, but it’s a problem when that is the only kind of story we’re getting,” she says.

All three women feel the tides are changing, and they’re encouraged and excited. Though the hill is not an easy climb, the top is in sight and it’s women like them who will get us there.

“All of the different voices that the world has to give,” Martinez says with an infectious optimism in her voice, “we need them in higher positions so that it trickles down and we get all the exciting things that theatre can be.”

Catch Martinez and Brockman in Hamill’s Vanity Fair on the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre stage now through Sunday, March 31. Tickets are $49-$135 and can be purchased at www.shakespearetheatre.org. Learn more about the playwright at www.kate-hamill.com.

Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre: 450 7th St. NW, DC; 202-547-1122; www.shakespearetheatre.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

Photo: Courtesy of Shakespeare Theatre Company

Modern Shakespeare: Richard the Third at STC

“Now is the winter of our discontent.”

The opening line of Richard the Third would have you believe that all hardships are over and only good days are to come. But as theatergoers attending Shakespeare Theatre Company’s (STC) upcoming production of Richard the Third will soon realize, anything but peace lies ahead.

Directed by David Muse for STC and running from February 5 through March 10, Shakespeare’s Richard the Third follows the titular role of Richard on his ambitious quest for the crown. A spiteful megalomaniac, Richard (Matthew Rauch) will stop at nothing until he sits on the throne, and thus invites the audience into a world of murder, villainy and even dark fun.

“Yes, Richard does horrific things in this play,” Rauch says, “but my hope and David’s [Muse] hope, I think, is that at least for the first part of the play, the audience reaction will not be ‘Oh, what a terrible person,’ but ‘Oh, isn’t he just deliciously evil’ and it’s terrible, but it’s fun to watch.”

Rauch emphasizes that just because the title of the play is Richard the Third, it doesn’t mean the story is only about him.

“It’s very easy with a face on the poster and the title of the play, for people to think there’s only one person involved,” Rauch says. “The truth is there’s about a hundred people involved and all of them are crucial.”

Some of those crucial people are the women around Richard, including his mother the Duchess of York, Margaret of Anjou and Queen Elizabeth. Rauch points out that while Richard can brilliantly manipulate people and events, these particular women don’t bend easily to his will and disprove the outdated notion that Shakespearean women are damsels in distress.

But a fourth woman equally as important to the play’s development, Lady Anne of Neville (Cara Ricketts), is the person who perhaps best understands Richard.

“Richard sees himself in [Anne] and she sees herself in him, in a way that she probably feels like she may break through to him,” Ricketts says. “He pretends it’s a possibility and she falls for it.”

Bust because Anne is ultimately manipulated by Richard, this doesn’t make her simple.

“My Anne is not a pushover,” Ricketts says. “There’s nothing soft about these women. The foundation for these characters has never been soft women.”

Ricketts adds she is ready to play Anne the way an audience 70 years ago may not have let her.

“During the 50s, you had preconceived notions about what a woman was in terms of society so that’s what you got,” Ricketts says. “Now I’ve got a chance to let loose the girdle and make it rip, so that’s what I’m doing while respecting what that character is.”

These preconceived notions of Shakespearean women are not the only ideas cast and crew hope prove outdated. Perhaps one of the most famous scenes in the play is the “wooing scene” where Richard interrupts Anne’s mourning of her father-in-law.

Rauch stresses that while many feel the scene is “creepy” and Richard comes off as “sexually predatory,” this is not the way they plan to portray Richard.

“The only event that needs to happen in the scene is that Anne consents to come to Richard’s house. Nothing else is implied in that scene or on the page and my hope is that it will not come off as sexually creepy,” Rauch says. “David [Muse] and I were never interested in a Richard who was sexually predatory, not because it’s not politically correct, but because we didn’t believe there was anything in the text that supported that.”

Changes in the character’s tones will not be the only noticeable differences in STC’s Richard the Third production. About 40 percent of the original text – mostly obscure English history – has been cut for a streamlined production.

“The Shakespeare Theatre is, I would argue, literally the best classical theater in the United States,” Rauch says. “They know how to do this here and they have created such a web of support.”

Rauch adds that despite the play’s age, audience members will find a lot of similarities between the 500-year-old story and modern society.

“[This is] a story about a deeply complicated, manipulative, brilliant person who rises to power and the people who are complicit in his doing so,” Rauch says. “All you need to do is read the front page of the New York Times to find parallels to that story.”

See Richard the Third at Shakespeare Theatre Company from February 5 through March 10. Runtime is 2 hours and 30 minutes with one 15-minute intermission. Tickets start at $44. For more information, click here.

Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Sidney Harman Hall: 610 F St. NW, DC; 202-547-1122; www.shakespearetheatre.org

Stage and Screen: December 2018

THROUGH DECEMBER 23

A Civil War Christmas
During the most divisive (literally) time in America, there were still holidays and reasons for general hopefulness. In A Civil War Christmas, the play casts a wide net from battlefields in Northern Virginia all the way to the Capitol Building in DC, featuring stories from a number of intertwining lives demonstrating how glee can exist during a tough and embattled time. This play features numerous songs great for a winter date or your visiting family. Various dates and times. $15-$39. 1st Stage Tysons: 1524 Spring Hill Rd. Tysons, VA; www.1ststagetysons.org

An Inspector Calls
When an inspector knocks on your door seemingly at random asking about a murder, it’s probably going to leave you somewhat shook. For the Birlings, a British family enjoying a festive evening, this surprise guest begins digging up connections with the crime and finds cracks in their seemingly perfect lives. This thriller pleas for a just society and works to pull down the facade on people who aren’t as innocent as they seem. Various dates and times. $44-$102. Shakespeare Theatre’s Sidney Harman Hall: 610 F St. NW, DC; www.shakespearetheatre.org

Indecent
Art and censorship do not belong together. When art is restricted, it ceases to be art and is at best incomplete, at worst propaganda. In the 1920s Sholem Asch’s Yiddish drama God of Vengeance broke free from previous restrictions and offered an evocative story of immigration, anti-Semitism and other taboo themes. Arena Stage’s Indecent offer a behind the scenes style story about the Broadway breakthrough, and the people who risked their careers to perform in the show. Various times and dates. $66-$82. Arena Stage: 1101 Sixth St. SW, DC; www.arenastage.org

MONDAY, DECEMBER 3 – SUNDAY, JANUARY 6

The Second City’s She the People
The famed Second City sketch comedy troupe is back with this all-female cast providing two hours of laughter. Celebrating the group’s tenth anniversary of their first visit to Woolly Mammoth, this performance is entirely produced, designed, curated and performed by women, and necessarily puts patriarchal norms on blast. Whether the subject is government, homelife or what’s happening in the world, these women will give their opinions and make you laugh while doing it. Various dates and times. Tickets start at $50. Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company: 641 D St. NW, DC; www.woollymammoth.net

TUESDAY, DECEMBER 4 – SATURDAY, DECEMBER 22

Motown: The Reprise
If you’ve ever wanted to feel transported to the 70s, this might be your best opportunity outside of an actual mechanic time machine, and those don’t exist. Instead you’ll hear hits by Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, the Jackson 5 and others in a celebration of one of the most influential and prolific moments in music history. Providing the sounds is Signature Theatre’s Motown: Hitsville U.S.A. cabaret, and this new flavor of Motown sound will be unlike any other. Various dates and times. $38. Signature Theatre: 4200 Campbell Ave. Arlington, VA; www.sigtheatre.org

TUESDAY, DECEMBER 4 – SUNDAY, JANUARY 6

My Father’s Dragon
Based on the book by Ruth Stiles Gannett, this story follows an adventurous young boy, and his cat companion, who undertake a journey to rescue a baby dragon from a place called Wild Island. While there, he’ll be forced to think quickly and imaginatively to reach his goals. With Game of Thrones off the air until April of next year, you’ll have to rely on other sources for your dragon-themed fiction, and this wordless play might be enough to satiate you until we return to Westeros. Various dates and times. $20. Synetic Theater: 1800 S Bell St. Arlington, VA; www.synetictheater.org

WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 5 – SUNDAY, DECEMBER 9

Ballet West: The Nutcracker
Ever since 1963, Ballet West has performed The Nutcracker. The company from Utah is set to revisit the classic tale with reimagined designs, stunning production and, of course, breathtaking choreography. Before you take a holiday vacation, make sure to stop by the Kennedy Center to see some of the nation’s best dancers perform this enchanting story, alongside Tchaikovsky’s unreal score. 7:30 p.m. on all days, with additional 1:30 p.m. performances on Saturday and Sunday. $59-$215. The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts: 2700 F St. NW, DC; www.kennedy-center.org

WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 12 – SUNDAY, JANUARY 6

Kings
Written by Alexandria native Sarah Burgess, Studio’s latest political comedy finds newly elected representative Sydney Millsap riding a blue wave into DC, armed with idealism and a true sense of duty. Once there, she crosses paths with Kate, a lobbyist, who quickly dismisses her as a one-term rookie. Through laughs about money and power, this refreshing take on democracy in the U.S. depicts how relationships between lobbyists and representatives play out behind closed doors. Various dates and times. $20-$45. Studio Theatre: 1501 14th St. NW, DC; www.studiotheatre.org

Photo: Margot Schulman

Signature Theatre Stirs Actors and Audiences with Passion

While an iconic work in the pantheon of Stephen Sondheim’s contributions to musical theatre, Passion is admittedly not an airy, feel-good musical. The hour-and-50-minute, one-act play asks much of its actors and its audiences as it tells the timeless story of wavering between the love of two different people.

The new production, at Signature Theatre through September 23, is staged to mirror a runway. The audience will be split down the middle, facing one another while absorbing the characters’ anguish as they’re torn between multiple outcomes throughout the play.

The musical, which made its debut in 1994 and holds the title of shortest-running show to win a Tony Award for Best Musical, is based on the recounting of an Italian author’s affair with an ailing woman while he served in the military. Giorgio (Claybourne Elder) swings from a dangerous pendulum between his carefully arranged relationship with his beautiful – and married – mistress Clara (Steffanie Leigh) and the allure of the reclusive, plain Fosca (Natascia Diaz).

Signature Theatre Associate Artistic Director Matthew Gardiner brings an intimacy and fierce intensity to the production, challenging audiences to face themselves and their perceptions of physical beauty. Every decision feels very deliberate, from splitting the stage in half to emphasize Giorgio’s gravitation toward both women to the unmoving lens on his transformation over the course of the play as the actor never once leaves the stage.

“It’s very dynamic,” says Diaz (West Side Story, Threepenny Opera) of the play’s staging. “It already denotes one side and another – and being pulled in multiple directions. That is the dynamic. Giorgio is being pulled between these two women. It visually exists in a physical format that enhances that energy. Matthew is able to make things that are tangible and real, but it has this ethereal quality to it.”

At first blush, the intricacies of the story may seem dated. A sickly, homely Fosca isolates herself from her surroundings and lives vicariously through books. Giorgio takes a military post far away from his beautiful Clara, but the lovers stay connected through impassioned letters. Though Passion is set in the 19th century, the painful missteps of romance and navigating the concept of monogamy are still very much familiar to us in 2018. As Elder (Sunday in the Park with George, Bonnie and Clyde) prepared for his role, he too found the subject matter relatable.

“The novel was written in 1870 and as I read it, I thought to myself, ‘What a fascinating mediation on love and obsession, affection and passion,’” Elder says. “I’ve definitely found myself in the novel – like, ‘I have done that before, I have felt that way about a person before’ – which is very interesting. The feelings behind it all are every bit as contemporary as they would have been in the 1800s.”

Fosca is widely regarded as one of the most unlikeable characters in modern theatre, making it a complex role for any actor. But much like Elder, Diaz looked past the surface and found common ground with the young woman, physical and emotional afflictions and all. While preparing to take on what she called the largest role she’s ever played, Diaz says she grew to feel as though she knew Fosca.

“I looked at the page and thought, ‘I could have written this,’ meaning that I understand her completely. I not only understand her, but I love her. It’s the strangest thing to play a character as large and as previously judged as this. It’s just like any other slander case. They don’t know her until they’ve read it and seen what’s at the center of her soul.”

The polarizing nature of Fosca lies not as much in her physical unattractiveness as it does in the fact that she embodies “pure, unadulterated feeling.” At the heart of the play, though, is Giorgio’s struggle between two women, two ways of life, his head and his heart.

The audience’s disdain for Fosca may be the initial visceral reaction, but the production holds another element that makes Giorgio’s role equally if not more so emotionally taxing. As the common thread that binds every character in Passion together, it makes sense to have Elder remain onstage for the entire performance – though the impressive feat does have its own physical and emotional challenges for the actor.

“What Giorgio learns in this play is astonishing and very profound,” Elder says. “I connect to it greatly and I find it very emotional, and therefore it’s hard. As actors, it costs something emotionally every time you do a play. You give a piece of yourself to it. I’m grateful this run is only a few months, because living in this for a long time would be very challenging. I would need a lot of therapy. It challenges me to really face myself.”

For audiences who are ready to experience a production that asks questions both timeless and timely, Signature is ready to take you on a journey in their intimate, inventive black-box space. You may learn something about yourself right alongside Giorgio.

Passion is not a show that gets done very often in regional theatre, because it’s not a big draw,” he continues. “It’s complicated, it’s emotional, it’s dark at times. It’s not a laugh-a-minute night out, so you need an audience that’s going to get excited and support it. I have absolutely no doubt that [Signature] is the best possible place to do this show. I feel very, very lucky to get to be a part of this.”

Stephen Sondheim’s Passion runs through September 23 at Signature Theatre. Tickets are $40-$104. Pride Night is September 7, Discussion Night is September 12 and Open Captioning will be held on September 16. Learn more at www.sigtheatre.org.

Signature Theatre: 4200 Campbell Ave. Arlington, VA; 703-820-9771; www.sigtheatre.org

Photo: Kitty Geoghan

A Day in the Life: Studio Theatre Literary Director Adrien-Alice Hansel

Imagine you’re handed a pile of plays. Hidden among them is the perfect story, waiting to be brought to life. Finding the next great piece for 14th Street’s Studio Theatre is just one of Adrien-Alice Hansel’s many responsibilities. On Tap sat down with Studio’s literary director to talk about her work, the DC theatre scene and what she enjoys doing in the city.

On Tap: What exactly does being a literary director entail on a daily basis?  
Adrien-Alice Hansel: I listen to our artistic director tell me the kind of work he wants to be doing in the next season and beyond, and then I reverse-engineer the process to get us there. I find projects to share with our literary committee, who review and discuss the work we’re considering. I have to understand what Studio is and does, and to understand what work is out there – both in the United States and internationally. I learn the work of many different writers and read their past work. Sometimes, we will even commission a play from a writer. I also do marketing and the initial publicity for each play. It’s a big, amazing job.

OT: Any other facets of the job that are particularly interesting?
AAH: I also work as what’s called a dramaturg, which means that for all of the shows of the season, my associate literary director Lauren Halverson [and I] get to know the play really well. [We get] to know the work of the writer and get deep into the world of the play. A piece set in 1838 but written in 1980 will have a different context now than it did in its initial run, and we have to understand that context.

OT: What makes Studio Theatre such a  unique space?
AAH: One great thing about Studio is that we have four spaces with 200 or fewer seats. It’s a big operation, but they’re all really intimate spaces so being able to hand that to a writer is an amazing privilege. Plays can speak at their own volume here – it can be quiet, it can be loud, it can be exuberant – and that’s one of the really wonderful and exciting things about my work.

OT: What are you looking for in a play that makes it a good fit for Studio?
AAH: Across the season, we’re looking for range. The kinds of work that we’re drawn to and that work well in our spaces are engaged and immediate. They reflect the contemporary world, and they’re somewhat political. We tend to do plays about people who are engaged in their lives and very affected by the outside world. They’re grappling with big questions. We do both dramas and comedies of character. We’re looking for plays that give you a ride and leave you with things to talk about. Our plays will give you a couple of ideas, a couple of perspectives. You’ll have felt your way through arguments on both sides. The “empathy gymnasium” of the theatre is a piece of what Studio does. You’re going to have fun, and you’re going to be up close with the actors on a journey.

OT: You’ve been at Studio for seven years. How has the DC theatre scene changed in your time there?
AAH: There was and there remains a passion for new work. There have always been great small theatre companies here, and I have definitely seen actors come through and move up. A lot of studios have started commissioning new work. There’s a sense of DC as a place, and theatre [companies] around the city are examining what it means to be in our nation’s capital in such an interesting intersection of different diaspora and communities. Increasingly, I see a lot of theaters engaging with questions of difference and inclusion, working to open the eyes of the mainstream theaters to the talent that is here.

OT: Has Studio changed along with the local scene?
AAH: At Studio, we’re asking aggressive questions about who is and isn’t on our stages and attending our plays – who used to be in our neighborhood and who isn’t here anymore. There’s a lot of work to do, and I think that plays are the best when the audience is different from each other. The thing that happens in theatre that I haven’t seen anywhere else is that when your audience is a mixed group of people, one group’s response to what’s happening onstage can teach the other.

OT: What plays from Studio’s 2018-2019 season are you most excited about?
AAH: Cry It Out [begins November 14] is about parenting. The main characters are these two new moms, and it’s a very, very funny play about how parenting looks different depending on your class. If I Forget [begins September 12] is set in DC in the early 2000s and is about Jewish identity as well as life in DC – and the 14th Street corridor itself. Queen of Basel [begins next March] is set in Miami and is a new version of Miss Julie by August Strindberg. Each of the main characters have a connection to the Caribbean or South America, and it’s about power, race and desire. And finally, there’s another new work called P.Y.G. [begins next April] about a boy band rock star who hires two musicians from a hip-hop group called Petty Young Goons to toughen up his image, all on reality TV. It’s a play about race, appropriation and the consequences of trying to tell your story.

OT: What do you like to do in DC when you’re not working?
AAH: I have two kids so that dictates a lot of my free time. DC is excellent on so many fronts. It doesn’t have the reputation that it should for its art scene. Big, small, culturally specific – it’s all here. As a parent, so much stuff is free, so you can take your kids to see so much and it’s close to nature. I grew up barefoot in back yards and fields. You can do that in Rock Creek Park in small ways or go outside the city easily and do that. Everything from the Kennedy Center to the Atlas [Performing Arts Center] is within reach. And as a side note, the coffee shops here are truly top notch.

OT: Do you like to go see plays by yourself, or do you prefer to go with other people?
AAH: I don’t have a strong preference. But if you go with me, we will definitely talk about it – but only after when we’re in a private place. I prefer to be incognito.

Learn more about Hansel’s work and Studio Theatre’s 2018-2019 season at www.studiotheatre.org.

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

Photo: Séamus Miller

A Sneak Peek at Work in Progress Tyrant

True to their mission to “Make Space for Art,” the nonprofit organization, CulturalDC, invited the public to a series of workshops at the Source Theatre’s 100-person black box space to provide feedback on the thought-provoking original play, Tyrant, written by Kathleen Akerley.

Tyrant follows the theatrical trend of law induced alternate realities similar to Hulu’s reworking of Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” and HBO’s adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451.”

Set in the United States, 40 years after the enacting of legislation that presumably solves the homeless crisis across the country, Tyrant explores the power dynamics that come when the ultra-wealthy force homeless citizens to work in exchange for lodging. Eliciting woeful calls from onlookers, the theme parallels the prison-industrial system enforced today in hundreds of for-profit prisons nationwide. Overflowing with racial and class-based oppression, Tyrant challenges viewers to evaluate their roles in the ongoing systemic oppression.

This particular workshop was a reading which allowed commenting, questioning, and a restructuring of roles, per the audience’s recommendation, after Act One. The goal was to explore scene functionality “when racial demographics are altered” according to CulturalDC.

With three “Actuals” and two “Maestros” name tags on seats across the intimate stage, scene one opens with a glacial-like air (both figuratively and literally), foreshadowing unfortunate actions to follow.

Martin, a maestro, is the homeowner played by a Caucasian male. He is a wealthy man (the source of his wealth is unknown) who has manifested upwards of 10 Actuals from the “Center” to perform certain tasks in his home. He has a chef, two massage therapists, nurses, drivers and a therapist.

His persona straddles the line between a sympathetic endearing supervisor and a threatening manipulative tyrant.

Shown interacting with Martin in act one are two Actuals; Leon and Regina, Martin’s massage therapists. Leon is played by a Caucasian male and Regina is played by a female of African descent.

Martin’s wealth is quickly obvious, as he lavishes himself with daily massage treatments, on each occasion sharing his dreams with Leon and Regina. Each session reveals a bizarre dream while they rub away the tension formed from a long day of no labor.

Regina and Leon have differing experiences prior to being placed with Martin. Regina, presumably in her mid-twenties, grew up in the Center where Actuals are raised and trained to work for Maestros. From birth, she was taught the laws of servitude and obedience. Whereas Leon, of a similar age, was raised by his mother until her sudden disappearance, before eventually becoming an Actual as well.

Both are happy and thankful to work in Martin’s home, as the Maestro provides lodging, food, clothing and even a small degree of companionship. Still, ambivalence weighs down the pair as they try to obey each law perfectly. Otherwise, their utmost fear of being reassigned or returned to the Center is unavoidable.

In this complex alternate reality, the laws are comprehensive but oppressive. The law surfacing continually prohibits Actuals from thinking or pretending as though they are not Actuals. They must always be an Actual, never aspiring to be anything more. Once an Actual, forever an Actual; they cannot purchase freedom, and there is no expiration for servitude.

Another law that echoes from the intercoms for all to hear is silence-time, which happens sporadically and ranges 5-10 hours a day. This period is a relevant restriction geared to ensure Actuals enjoy adequate rest to guarantee their ability to perform their jobs. During this time they must not talk, work or perform any other activity.

Their ability to work is fundamental to their involvement in the program. Similar to solitary confinement for those with behavioral problems in prison, if they do not work, they must return to the Center for correcting.

Fortunately, the laws not only apply to Actuals. Maestros have their own set of regulations to abide by once they’ve acquired and manifested an Actual. Maestros cannot make Actuals uncomfortable, and inflicting pain is prohibited. Instead, Maestros provide reports detailing their experience and all incidents that transpire. Any violation found leads to the immediate removal of Actuals and the expulsion of the Maestros in question.

It is clear an attempt was made to form a utilitarian society harvesting the labor found in slavery but without its cruelty and violence. But with absolute power, absolute corruption follows.

In the case of Tyrant, the oppression of the homeless population is overt proof of corruption. Many implicit tactics are used to facilitate tyranny, such as the restriction on education. The rationale for restricting slaves’ educational development was that if slaves could read, they could aspire and plot to be more than slaves. Though Actuals can read, access to real-world experiences and knowledge is restricted.

In a particular daunting scene, Regina injures herself on a scolding hot tea kettle, unlawfully gifted by Leon. Once confronted by Martin, due to her inability to massage him, it’s evident Regina had no conception of healing. During an exhausting exchange between Martin and Regina, where Martin attempts to manipulate Regina to strike fear in her, he eludes to her inability to perform her job. With this proclamation, she ascertains her hand-use will never be regained and begins to spiral, as the fear of returning to the Center is upon her.

After the close of act one, playwright Akerley asked the audience if they would like to see any actors in a different role. She forewarns the audience, disclosing sexually violent graphic scenes are to occur in the second act. Which led one individual to ask that the female actor, playing Regina, be removed. She was reassigned to the role of Martin, after an understudy praised her portrayal of the character from previous performances. The audience member explains the reasoning behind his recommendation, sharing his discomfort with “seeing” harm done to a woman of African descent by a white male, explaining it “hits too close to home.”

With Regina cast as a Caucasian female and Martin a woman of African descent, the second act continues without skipping a beat.

Once the show concluded and the heinous sexual act transpired, comments and questions poured from the audience.

One woman asked, “What is the ideal audience you see watching your play?” Akerley responded, “white middle and upper-middle class,” with the purpose of inciting a reaction or sense of responsibility to resolve systemic racial and class-based oppression.

Audience members questioned the inclusion of violent sexual acts, suggesting this form of assault is heavy handed.  To counteract both claims offered by these individuals, another actor proposes their inability to address or confront oppressive acts against minorities (women and people of color) further perpetuates the cycle of injustice. Because we live in a society where crimes persist against those presumed to be at the lower end of these power dynamics, there is a need for dramatic portrayals reinforcing that progress is still needed.

On a later call, Akerley explains the importance of race in the production of this piece of work. Reminiscing about a 2014 field production in Chicago, where an entirely Caucasian, and outstanding, cast provoked a lackluster conversation. She recalls conversations about the legality of legislation and the potential enactment of this law, rather than the treatment of marginalized individuals and the stripping of fundamental liberties like freedom, love and prosperity.

Akerley hopes future producers will cast the play in a way that “make[s] conversations productive.” She feels it is her obligation, as a playwright, to make audiences uncomfortable, yet willing to grapple with and confront the disparities produced by society.

Tyrant is in the final editing stages and will premiere in a DC theater in 2019. To see upcoming Longacre Lea productions, visit here and to learn more about CulturalDC events at visit here.

Photo: Courtesy of Shakespeare Theatre Company

Lucky Steals Show in Waiting For Godot

Hope and despair, slapstick comedy and profound philosophical musings, each are abound in quick succession in Samuel Beckett’s iconic and mysterious play Waiting for Godot.

Irish acting company Druid is performing their rendition of the hard-to-interpret play at the Shakespeare Theatre Company through May 20. The metaphorical mystery in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot leaves an endless amount of room for interpretation, but Druid’s rendition is certain to keep audiences laughing as much as it will make them think.

The play tells the story of two tramps, seemingly stranded on a barren countryside road. Vladimir (nicknamed Didi, played by Marty Rea), a usually cheerful intellectual and Estragon (nicknamed Gogo, played by Aaron Monaghan), the wearier of the two. The pair bicker, play games and tell stories endlessly, while they wait for the arrival of someone named Godot. During the eager, sometimes hopeless, wait, the tone alternates between heartbreaking and hilarious.

“I think Beckett wants us to go through all the different emotions in this play. There are some very sad, emotional moments and kind of a despair at times but then he does the opposite, there’s great hope and great love and great laughs at times at ourselves and our existence,” actor Garrett Lombard says.

The two tramps, draped in shabby clothes and plagued with ill-fitting boots and itchy hats, encounter only three other characters: Pozzo (Rory Nolan), his slave named Lucky (Lombard) and an unnamed boy (Malcolm Fuller).

The tramps wonder about and at times judge Pozzo’s treatment of Lucky, who is constantly burdened with a stool, a basket, a suitcase full of sand and a rope around his neck.

“[Lucky is] a very subservient character, very low-status kind of guy, and he basically wants to please his master by doing his job of carrying his bags and giving him his coat and his stool and his whip and whatnot as best as he can,” Lombard says.

Perhaps the character most difficult to interpret in Waiting for Godot, Lucky stumbles around the stage, answering to Pozzo’s every beck and call, without saying a word – until his famous, breathtaking monologue that earned a raucous round of applause from the awestruck audience.

“He comes out with this incredible, mad, long, stream of consciousness speech, about the human existence and what we have ascertained about trying to explain this and trying to explain the universe and ends up, during the speech, almost losing his mind completely,” Lombard says.

The monologue nearly drives Pozzo, Didi and Gogo out of their minds as well.

This landmark moment makes preparing for the role of Lucky a colossally strenuous process. In addition to his monologue, the character spends most his time either hunched over or flopping down in exhaustion. According to Lombard, prepping for the character required a lot of stretching and staying in the best possible shape.

Apart from the physical aspects, the getting in the mind of the character was an isolating process, Lombard says. Lucky is constantly serving Pozzo and does deliver an enormous speech, but he never actually banters with other characters.

“It’s a bit of a lonely process. You don’t get to have the kind of fun that Didi and Gogo have in the rehearsal room. But it’s a really interesting one to work on as an actor, even if it was a little bit lonely at times,” Lombard says.

Critics have debated the symbolism of Lucky’s name, as well as his role. Some say Lucky is aptly named because unlike any other characters, he knows what his purpose is – to serve Pozzo. The name could also be sarcastic, which is in line with the play’s dark humor.

Catch the show until May 20 at the Lansburgh Threatre. Tickets start at $44 and can be purchased here. More information can be found at www.shakespearetheatre.org.

STC’s Lansburgh Theatre: 450 7th St. NW, DC; 202-547-1122; www.shakespearetheatre.org