Posts

Photo: Rich Kessler Photography

Jazz Musician Mark G. Meadows Brings Spontaneity to Signature Theatre

A Jazz Musician

“I am a jazz musician,” Mark G. Meadows says matter-of-factly while sitting at a Blue Bottle Coffee table in a bright red embroidered jacket that helps him stand out among the commuters and passersby at Union Station. “Why do I need to audition for an acting role? I’m not an actor.” 

He explains how theatre first piqued his interest as a performer, and as soon as he begins recounting how he nabbed the titular role in Signature Theatre’s Jelly’s Last Jam in 2016, it becomes obvious that theatre was more interested in Meadows rather than the reverse. 

Instead of dipping his toe in the water, Meadows dove headfirst into the deep end in the form of a major production at one of the DMV’s most prominent theaters – forcing him from his comfort zone as an artist and performer. Since the successful starring role, he’s done nothing but increase his jazz and overall musical prowess through various titles at Signature, including as the Shirlington-based theater’s cabaret series artistic associate. 

 “I realize that sometimes you have to let go of your dreams and let what is happening help you find your niche,” Meadows says. “For me, my dream three years ago [was that] I’d be touring the world as Mark G. Meadows: The Movement. It hasn’t happened. But in a way, it’s almost even better because I stand out as this quasi-theatre/jazz guy.” 

Merry Motown

Meadows’ latest production is A Motown Christmas, a holiday special in Signature’s cabaret series. The show, which runs through December 22, allows the jazz musician a chance to revisit songs that evoke childhood memories of him and his father singing along to Motown hits while decorating their Christmas tree.

“It might seem selfish, but I chose the [songs] that related to me the most,” he says. “Not only because it’s what I like, but because I can teach them better. I can see my dad putting ornaments on the tree, blasting these.” 

Songs include The Supremes’ rendition of “Silver Bells,” Stevie Wonder’s “Someday at Christmas,” Marvin Gaye’s “Purple Snowflakes” and The Jackson 5’s version of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” which apparently includes rapping? Yes, rapping.

“On several tracks, they straight up rap,” Meadows says about the legendary Motown group. “They’re doing it with swag and everything, so we have some surprises for the crowd to make it feel current.” 

Despite the performance being a Christmas special, Meadows says there’s no added pressure to pick specific songs people are familiar with. But he does encourage crowd engagement. Though he laughed when labeled an “expert,” he does admit he’s been listening to holiday tunes since September and can match any crowd suggestions with one of his own.

“Talk to a white person, black person, old person, young person, whatever – they know Motown,” he says. “I want people to feel the Christmas spirit. I think obviously we’re going through some awful times with a sense of culture and connectedness, and we’ve lost a real sense of feeling. I hope that the music, Motown and Christmas can tie people together.” 

A Taste of Theatre

Meadows’ first inclination was to pass on the audition for Jelly’s Last Jam, and the decision would have stood had he not been persuaded by a friend from Dizzy’s Club in New York City.

 “I got back to DC, I met up with [Jelly’s director and Signature Theatre’s associate artistic director] Matthew Gardiner, I auditioned, and he told me if I accepted the role, I would be the lead. I still had no idea what it was. I was thinking like a small high school auditorium with a piano where I play a few songs and take a bow.”

 Instead, the spotlight and pressure were on him to deliver an all-encompassing performance as historic jazz musician Jelly Roll Morton. Though he hasn’t taken the stage in this capacity since, he was suddenly an established force in the DC theatre scene. 

“It was amazing. It was one of those stars aligning kind of moments,” he says. “Now all of a sudden, my foot is in the theatre world. It’s great because I’ve begun to be a music director for a lot of productions. It’s totally opened up my world to an audience who is even more appreciative of jazz than a jazz audience.”

Go with the Flow

For Meadows, the transition from jazz musician to leading man to behind the curtains has been seamless, and includes stints in some of Signature’s more music-forward productions like its cabaret series and the musicals Ain’t Misbehavin’ and Spunk. Though the jazz artist wouldn’t turn down another opportunity to be in the spotlight, he won’t lie and tell you he’s pining for it either. 

“I’m the kind of person [who] just goes with the flow. Whatever work comes my way is the work that I accept and focus on. [Acting] has not come up as much since Jelly’s Last Jam. It’s been more so from the music direction perspective, which is more my cup of tea. If something comes up again, I’d probably take it and roll with the punches. If I look at my life, music direction is more my forte. Acting is great and challenging. I had no idea what I was doing. I managed to do it, but I feel way more secure as a music director than as an actor.”

Theatre has also helped his burgeoning jazz career, introducing his style of music to an audience who otherwise may not have heard him. While theatre is generally more restrictive than spontaneous, improvisation-heavy jazz, Meadows’ “theatrical” lyrics and ability to adapt to the classical structure has led to a surprisingly fruitful marriage. 

“Signature has given me the freedom to have jazz energy while having structure and form,” he says. “The cool thing about being a music director is that I have the authority to extend a section or repeat something or do a longer intro. I feel that even though it’s leaning toward theatre, it doesn’t lose the spontaneous nature of jazz.”

With his go with the flow attitude, it’s tough to make predictions about what’s on the horizon for Meadows. Will he be a leading man onstage? Will he oversee the music for a future production? It’s hard to predict what a jazz musician will focus on next, because like the music, there are usually twists, turns and outright risks. 

“I still don’t understand how Matthew Gardiner took a risk on me,” he says laughing. “I don’t know what he saw. I don’t even think he saw me perform, but God bless him.” 

See Meadows in A Motown Christmas at Signature Theatre now through December 22. Tickets $38. For more information about Meadows and his artistic endeavors, visit www.markgmeadows.com. 

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

Photo: Rich Kessler Photography

DC Actress Maria Rizzo Embraces Challenges, Finds Humor & Adds a Hint of Sass

Kicking and Singing

Maria Rizzo is quick to tell you she’s not a dancer. Her high kicks aren’t high enough, she says when flinging her leg effortlessly in the air for the On Tap cover shoot. 

“I’m in pain,” she says. “Great pain. My hamstrings are ruined. [Dancing] is absolutely horrifying and really scary to me, [but] it’s a wonderful challenge.” 

The challenge she’s currently tackling is playing Shelia in Signature Theatre’s A Chorus Line. During her audition at the Arlington theater, Rizzo made a point not to dance. That was never her strong suit, and it wasn’t going to be the reason for her casting. Instead, the Helen Hayes nominee relied on the aspects she loves most about acting: comedy and sass. 

“I was cracking jokes in there,” she says. “I was trying to be funny, trying to be charming. I love comedy so much. You can find humor in [characters] if you’re not taking them as seriously as they take themselves.” 

In the DC theatre scene, Rizzo is definitely taken seriously. She’s performed at many of the city’s most renowned theaters including Arena Stage, Keegan Theatre, Olney Theatre Center and Studio Theatre, among others. The actress has essentially taken residency at Signature this year, appearing in Grand Hotel, Assassins and the aforementioned A Chorus Line, running through January 5. 

“I mean I didn’t plan it, but they just kept asking. [Signature] feels like home. I know and respect the work that the directors and choreographers do, and I love vibing with those friends. I want to call them friends because of how much I love and respect what they do.”

Auditioning  to Play Auditioners

The winner of nine Tony Awards and a Pulitzer Prize, A Chorus Line is an iconic musical with a narrative about a group of hopeful dancers going through the process of landing a spot on the chorus line of a show. While the commentary could be meta for people in the theatre world, Rizzo was drawn to the play because of its underlying question of whether to hold on or let go of your passion. 

“When I started, I had a very different opinion of the show then where I’m at now. I thought it romanticized what we do and was just a bunch of dancers trying to get a part and be in this ensemble [with] this mean director asking them about their Rosebud or their childhood. Yes, it’s about performers, but it’s a coming-of-age story about letting go or holding onto your dream, your passion, whatever it might be. I really learned to appreciate this more.” 

And then there’s the dancing, as the play is physically exhilarating and demanding for the performers. While Rizzo – again, not a dancer – was excited to portray Sheila, she knew it would be a large undertaking. 

“An OG of DC theatre, Holly Twyford, said in an interview, ‘If it doesn’t scare you, what are you doing?’ If I’m doing the same crap all the time, how is it making me a better artist? It’s also really great learning from all the people who are in the show and do this 24/7.” 

Apart from the physical demands, Rizzo was also drawn to the character of Sheila from an emotional perspective. One of the more seasoned dancers in the audition room, she’s entitled, tough and a little bossy.

 “I think she’s jaded,” she says. “There are definitely people in the industry who are that way – not in our show, but in shows I’ve done in the past. Sheila’s not villainous in any way, but she’s tough. I think playing that is always more fun than playing the congenial type.”

 For the show, Rizzo is joined by one of the largest casts in Signature Theatre history. With the number of bodies moving around onstage and behind the curtain, it’s hard not to get caught up in the energy surge, whether you’re a part of the cast or audience. 

“There’s something about big dance shows, like West Side Story or A Chorus Line, that creates camaraderie,” she says. “I enjoy a surge of energy. It’s a 5, 6, 7, 8 power punch and you’re just going.”

The Bug

Theatre was always the obvious career choice for Rizzo, as she “caught the bug” after portraying Fran in a grade school production of Once Upon a Mattress. Eventually, her childhood passion turned into her area of study at Catholic University before becoming her profession. 

“I think I knew when I was really young, and luckily I have really supportive parents, a supportive family, who would let me do and study the craft,” she says. “What’s been the best is being able to bring them to these great theaters, to show them the work we’re doing. It’s full circle.”

 Rizzo says people always ask her what she would be if not for her career as an actress, and lately, because of the subject matter of A Chorus Line, the query has been fielded even more. 

“That stuff comes up all the time when I look at my bank account,” she says, laughing. “That question is coming up a lot doing the show because it’s about learning to let go of love or hold onto love. I’m sure there is [something], but I just haven’t looked in that direction. When something brings you this much joy, it’s hard to look away from it.” 

Despite jokes about her bank account and her reflections on her currently meta role, Rizzo has no reason to shift focus. There’s little doubt Rizzo will be on many a DC stage in 2020, bringing sassy characters to life while continuing to challenge herself as an artist. 

“Everything you do presents challenges and glory in different ways, but at the same time, everything is also very fleeting. You can’t take anything for granted and you can’t throw too much of it away. I’m always looking for ways to make it better, or [find] what’s the next. I’m never satisfied.” 

A Chorus Line is currently sold out but for updates about the show, visit www.sigtheatre.org. Follow Rizzo on Instagram @mariarizz9o.

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

Production Artwork Courtesy of Signature Theatre

Playwright Dani Stoller Talks World Premiere of “Easy Women Smoking Loose Cigarettes”

DC-by-way-of-Brooklyn playwright Dani Stoller’s original play Easy Women Smoking Loose Cigarettes is a female-forward work coming to Signature Theatre in Shirlington from February 18 to March 29. Stoller’s piece is part of the Heidi Thomas Writer’s Initiative, which presents world premieres by female playwrights with female directors. We chatted with the up-and-coming playwright to get the lowdown on the play directly from the source and to learn more about what it’s like to work with other talented women in theatre.

On Tap: In your own words, what is Easy Women Smoking Loose Cigarettes about?
Dani Stoller: It’s actually a love letter to my mom. I think it’s also about the ways that we go about getting pleasure, the kind of risks we take and the consequences of the routes we take to getting that gratified – either in terms of the attention or the sex we want.

OT: How much of it was informed by your family, relationships or personal experiences?
DS: Originally, a friend of mine wanted an adaptation of The Scarlet Letter and I was like, “I’m going to try and write that.” But it had already been done by some really great writers. So, I decided to try my own version, and we had been talking about affairs. Not that I would ever recommend anyone having an affair, nor do I condone it, but there’s a lot of thoughts that my mother has on sex and intimacy that are very far removed from mine. Specifically, how can you support your child through something that you are so vehemently against [in a] moral space? It initially started as a reconciliation between two lovers, between the husband and wife. It wound up really being about a reconciliation between a mother and her daughter, because they have to understand one another in order for them to fully get healed in that way.

OT: What has it been like working on this play as part of the Heidi Thomas Writer’s Initiative?
DS: It’s so cool. They do one new world premiere work by a woman every year, directed by a woman, which I think is awesome. I feel really, really blessed about the director we got – Stevie Zimmerman. She’s amazing. We interviewed a bunch of women and she just kind of just fit the bill on all levels of what we were looking for. I was just like, “Yeah, I think that this woman will kill it at the helm of this very odd little piece.”

Stoller’s Easy Women Smoking Loose Cigarettes runs at Signature Theatre from February 18 to March 29. Tickets are $66. For more information, visit www.sigtheatre.org. For more on Stoller and her work, visit www.danistoller.com.

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

Awa Sal Secka (Shanti), Kevin McCallister (Caesar), Chris Hoch (Blackbeard), Christopher Mueller (Jake), and Lawrence Redmond (Samuel) in Blackbeard at Signature Theatre // Photo: Christopher Mueller

Blackbeard Costume Designer Helps Pirate Live His Best Life

For Signature Theatre’s world premiere of Blackbeard, the cast and crew has to look magnificent. The famed pirate, upon learning he is wanted by the British Army embarks on a fantastical journey across the globe to raise an undead-pirate army from the depths of the sea. To fully depict this fantastical spirit, costume designer Erik Teague was able to create a variety of colorful and outer-worldly outfits for this show, and he spoke to On Tap about his experience working on the production before the show begins its run on June 18.

On Tap: What brought you into costume design?
Erik Teague: I was that weird kid who loved comic books and movies, still true today, but the oddball component is that I really enjoyed opera. I thought I wanted to be an opera singer. As I studied, my love of music never changed, and I realized the thing that was exciting about the performance was the transformation. I finally realized,  oh wait I’m just a designer, okay great!

Illustrations: courtesy of Signature Theatre

OT: Did you know the Signature team prior, if not what was the collaborative process for you in terms of creativity?
ET: This is my very first time working with the team at Signature, they are a company I have long admired because of the ambitious nature of what they do. It is always interesting to come into a different artistic family than your own, this group of people has a long history of working together. I’ve had to figure out where to fit in, but overall it has been very good, we have been able to communicate with each other well and share ideas fluidly.

OT: Why did you choose to join the team for Blackbeard?
ET: An adventure fantasy musical that centers around pirates, I thought that was super exciting, and super in my artistic wheelhouse. Meaning there would be lots of sword fights and swashbuckling and swinging on ropes, which I find very interesting. Building costumes for these types of performances has different methods than other performances where you just walk across the stage and deliver your lines. The construction methods are different, it is always exciting to find out what a performer needs to be supported to do their choreography.

OT: What is your favorite moment of the show?
ET: There are a couple of good ones, but I will say the I am pretty proud of the zombie pirate horde. We have done some highly theatrical gestures, by a couple, I mean we have created a horde of skeleton pirates who glow in the dark by using tandem puppets. Three of them can walk in a line together, I worked with Kylie Clark, a talented artist who made the puppets, and helped to get them functional.

OT: What is your favorite costume in the show, if any?
ET: Definitely Blackbeard’s two coats, they are a wonderful show in contrasts. His first coat is very distressed and lived in, and looks like it could have walked off the Pirates of the Caribbean movie set. Versus the second coat, his afterlife coat. Blackbeard is living his best life in his afterlife. He has been beheaded as per the real history. He finally becomes the myth and legend he has been trying to live up to the whole time. I gave him the opportunity to look the best, [a] red velvet coat with black beading all over it, and black Venetian lace trimming.

Blackbeard opens at Signature Theatre June 18, running through July 14. For more information and tickets visit www.sigtheatre.org.

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

Photo: Margot Schulman

The Many Complexities of Grand Hotel

Grand Hotel isn’t like any other show.

This is what artistic director Eric Schaeffer tells me on a phone call the morning after I catch his new production at Signature Theatre, and I can say with full certainty that he’s quite right.

He relishes the fact he selected a Tony Award-winning play that’s complex, layered and challenging – adjectives he uses to describe the frenetic musical during our conversation, all of which just so happened to pop up multiple times in my post-show notes.

And it’s no coincidence: the 1929 novel turned 1932 MGM film turned 1989 Broadway hit wasn’t easy for me to connect with night of, but I was still thinking about it for days, even weeks, later. But art is meant to push us out of our comfort zones and expose us to new ways of thinking about and experiencing life, and Schaeffer’s known for taking those risks at Signature every season.

Whether it’s debuting daring new pieces or embracing notoriously difficult classics, the director doesn’t shy away from works that might make his audience fidget or his actors balk. And now through May 19, Schaeffer encourages theatregoers to sit in the lobby of a 1928 Berlin hotel as an extremely eclectic cast of characters weaves on the periphery of one another’s lives.

“The show just keeps layering on itself, which is interesting,” he tells me. “It’s not just like, here it is and here’s the story. It’s kind of like a painting that just keeps on taking off layers and layers and layers, which is the really neat thing about the show. I love that it challenges the audience, it challenges the actors. It just becomes this experience.”

His 16-person cast – full of Signature regulars and DC up-and-comers, plus a truly dazzling performance from the magnetic Nkrumah Gatling (Broadway’s Miss Saigon) – was whittled down from the original production’s 28. The method to his madness? He wanted to give the audience a fighting chance at following all of the show’s storylines through the lens of a sticky-fingered baron, aging ballerina, dying bookkeeper and desperate typist, to name a few.

“It was a hard puzzle to figure out, but it was fun once I did,” he says of casting the play. “There’s all these snapshots that are put together, and you keep getting slices of all these different lives and how they’re interconnected – or not – they all just happen to be passing in and out of the hotel lobby.”

Schaeffer selected his talent well, whipping the audience into a sometimes delightful (in numbers like the cheeky “Maybe My Baby Loves Me”), often uncomfortable (grappling with the heaviness of mortality or a successful man’s implied power over a naïve woman) frenzy. In just under two hours with no intermission, the impressive cast sings several dozen songs and swings the mood pendulum from light to dark at only a moment’s notice. It’s hard to keep up with – visually, sonically and emotionally.

The highly stylized, momentum-driven production isn’t just a lot for the audience to handle – the director says that everyone from the ensemble to the leads had an “Oh my god, this is so challenging” reaction.

“Which is great,” he says, “because they’re not doing the same old thing. It makes them grow as artists, which I think is really important.”

His level of commitment to the production extended beyond nudging his cast gingerly out of the nest and into uncharted – or at least less traveled – territory to a set design that married opulence of a building both old and grand with an ambiance that felt modern, contemporary and relatable.

“I really wanted the audience to feel like they’re sitting in the lobby of a hotel just eavesdropping on all of these conversations that are happening.”

And he did just that by collaborating with set designer Paul Tate dePoo III to create a dynamic set that transforms from a decadent hotel room to the black void of a haunting train station within seconds.

“It was a balance,” dePoo says. “It was a constant conversation. We didn’t get too far away from the contemporary world.”

And like Schaeffer, he takes his craft incredibly seriously, aiming to capture the spirit of the chaotic play and its varied cast through the design.

“Hopefully, it tells the story in a way that we don’t feel like we’re disconnected from these people and we appreciate the era they are currently telling the story within.”

Peel back the layers of this theatrical onion through Sunday, May 19 at Signature Theatre. Tickets start at $40 and are available at www.sigtheatre.org.

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

Liam Redford (Billy Elliot) and ensemble // Photo: Margo Schulman

Better When I’m Dancing: Billy Elliot The Musical

“What’s this show with miners in tutus about?”

That’s a question many people ask about Billy Elliot, both when the film came out in 2000 and when the hit musical debuted five years later. In this case, it’s a question asked by Matthew Gardiner, the director and choreographer behind Signature Theatre’s winter production of the musical.

If you haven’t heard of – or seen – the movie or the musical, Billy Elliot tells the story of its titular character, an 11-year-old English boy who discovers a love of ballet while surrounded by a family of coal miners who don’t support his nontraditional passion – at least not at first. Hence, the miners and tutus.

After the film became a hit, Elton John was enlisted to write songs for a musical version that debuted in London’s West End in 2005. Next came productions in Australia and in 2008, on Broadway where the musical won 10 Tony Awards including Best Musical. And now, DC area audiences can catch the musical at Shirlington’s award-winning theater through early January.

Gardiner, Signature’s associate artistic director, has a personal connection to the story as he too studied ballet growing up.

“It was hard being a boy who loved ballet and musical theatre,” Gardiner says. “I was picked on a lot. But I felt safe when I was in the ballet classroom or in a rehearsal room. Those were the places I felt most like myself and most at home.”

It’s also an experience that the young star of Signature’s production, Liam Redford, can relate to. A native of North Hanover, New Jersey, Liam is 11 and a student of all types of dance at Philadelphia’s Rock School for Dance Education. Like Billy, he’s had to deal with people who don’t understand his passion.

“I have experienced many people who are not supportive of me in being a young male dancer,” the young actor says. “In school, many of the other kids looked down on me or did not think that what I loved to do was normal.”

However, both Redford and Gardiner have been able to overcome those past experiences and follow their dreams – a theme at the heart of Billy Elliot. When speaking with Redford, it’s clear he’s still riding the high of transitioning from playing Billy at a small community theatre in New Jersey to his current role in the Signature production.

“It feels amazing to know that so many other kids just like me can take on this role and relate to Billy in all the same ways as I do as a male dancer,” he says. “I am so lucky to be able to play this role that so many amazing people have played before.”

The production has two totally different casts of school-aged cast members performing in the show, including another Billy. In a nod to the show’s composer (and maybe West Side Story), the two casts are nicknamed the “Bennies” and the “Jets.” There’s no rivalry between the two groups, though. Redford says they hang out all the time.

“We are very close and love spending time with each other, and we have so much fun when we are together. We all hang out on Mondays when we are all off. Our young performing cast is like a little family.”

The talent and dedication of all the kids involved in the production amazes Gardiner, and he says he doesn’t change his style when directing the younger actors.

“I could never do what these kids are doing at their age,” he says. “I was good, but these kids are amazing. Their dedication and artistry are unbelievable. I play my part by encouraging them and treating them like I’d treat any adult actor. They are that good.”

The director says he was originally hesitant to work on Billy Elliot as he was only familiar with the film.

But when he read the script for the musical, he realized that it had an important message for today’s audiences.

“When I read the piece, I was taken aback by this story of loss and a community fighting for their voice – and ultimately, for the dreams of one little boy. In these trying times, we need more stories about the ways in which we unite.”

Don’t miss Billy Elliot: The Musical at Signature Theatre, now through Sunday, January 6. The run time is roughly two hours and 45 minutes with one 15-minute intermission. Tickets start at $40. Learn more at www.sigtheatre.org.

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