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Astro Lab Alfie American Stout, Seasonal Barrel Aged Sagamore Spirit and the Figure of Speech at Round House Theatre's Fourth Wall Bar and Cafe // Photo: Kaley Etzkorn

Round House Theatre’s Fourth Wall Bar and Cafe Creates Community Among Theatergoers

I have a typical procedure when going to a theater. I like to get there early but not too early, I want the doors to the seats to already be open. Then, I pick up my ticket and take my seat. I feel this is pretty standard for most theatergoers. Except for when seeing a show a Round House Theatre.

When going to see their production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, I thought I arrived too early because no one had taken their seats yet. Instead, people gathered around the bar or were sitting at tables having actual conversations. The kinds of conversation between strangers that happened before people went on their phones and avoided eye contact.

This was Round House’s intention. Artistic director Ryan Rilette says the theater wanted to be a place for audience members to congregate and talk about performances while also being able to enjoy a drink or meal.

Spread Trio // Red Pepper Hummus, Spicy Whipped Ricotta, Spinach & Artichoke Dip // $9 // Photo: Kaley Etzkorn

“So much of what Round House does is about big C community, about trying to build community through our work. With every show we do, we’re reaching out to different groups trying to figure out what is the right kind of audience for this show? How do we build the community around the show?” Rilette asks.

“The idea of using our space to build community, we already have a space that a lot of people will rent, but how do we find a way to increase dialogue among audience members to make it a more comfortable experience and to really create more of a sense of community? This bar and cafe was the idea.”

Butter Chicken and Rice // Tandoori Chicken in Mild Tomato Curry // $10 // Photo: Kaley Etzkorn

I decided to order one of the specialty drinks for this production, a Figure of Speech
made of Linganore mead, Pimm’s No. 1 Cup and lemon juice. While I expected to be a wallflower, two ladies who were also sampling the cafe menu quickly join me. We chatted about our excitement and knowledge of the show. I had never had such an enjoyable pre-show experience.

After the show, the actors (including an adorable golden retriever puppy) came out and greeted audience members. While it was odd hearing them without the show’s required British accents, it was an intimate experience getting to revel with the cast.

“I feel like we as a society are so disconnected from each other,” Rilette says. “Our virtual connect through social media, email, phones and everything is our primary connection. It used to be that the church fulfilled this function for a lot of people as a place to gather, turn everything off and be able to communicate, but less and less people go to church. I feel like arts are a deep connection that asks big questions and is a chance to meet like-minded people and converse with them about what you just saw. To me, when that all clicks together, there is nothing better.”

Harvest Bowl // Wild Mushrooms, Sweet Potatoes, Roasted Cauliflower, Butternut Squash, Super Greens, Truffle Vinaigrette // $13 // Photo: Kaley Etzkorn

Rilette imagined a space that was inviting and created community, but it also needed to have really good food. Food and beverage manager Hudson Tang decided to take the Fourth Wall Bar & Cafe to the next level by including themed items as well as using all local purveyors.

“It can be hard to come up with ideas for a themed menu,” Tang says. “Since [The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime] takes place in England, it was a bit easier.”

The British-themed menu includes dishes inspired by Indian cuisines such as Butter Chicken and Aloo Gobi as well as traditional English treats like breakfast quiche, steak and stout pie and Beef Wellington. In addition to their Figure of Speech cocktail, they also have Toby consisting of Tenth Ward Autumn Liqueur, Tenth Ward Caraway Rye, Paromi Cinnamon Chai and vanilla syrup. For a non-alcoholic option, the strawberry float is a delicious combination of coconut milk, strawberry syrup and ginger beer.

Spicy Veggie Pie // $8 // Photo: Kaley Etzkorn

The menu rotates with each show but what remains is the bar and cafe’s commitment to supporting local vendors. Linganore Wines of Mt. Airy, MD, Lotus Grill & Bar of Bethesda, MD and Moorenko’s Ice Cream of Silver Spring, MD are a few of many local purveyors to be featured.

“It can be a challenge finding vendors with good food that holds, but it’s important that everything is sourced locally and thematic,” Tang says.

Astro Lab Alfie American Stout, Seasonal Barrel Aged Sagamore Spirit, and the Figure of Speech // $8, $13, $11 // Photo: Kaley Etzkorn

The Fourth Wall Bar & Cafe opens one hour prior to curtain. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time runs until December 22. For tickets or more information visit here.

Round House Theatre: 4545 East-West Hwy. Bethesda, MD; 240-644-1100; www.roundhousetheatre.org

Photo: Little Fang Photography

Machine Dazzle Puts Artistic Twist On Holiday Sauce Costumes

Being the decorator of a bonafide genius isn’t for the faint at heart. At least that’s what I imagine when considering the dynamics between Machine Dazzle and MacArthur Fellowship, unofficially known as the Genius Grant, recipient Taylor Mac, known for his genre-bending drag performances. 

Just weeks before their Holiday Sauce performance at the Kennedy Center on December 12, I spoke with Dazzle, Matthew Flower, responsible for envisioning award-winning masterpieces and costumes worn by Mac onstage, and by Diane von Fürstenberg and Cara Delevingne at the 2019 Met Gala.  

The holiday-themed performance is set to feature Mac upending traditional Christmas expectations with Dazzle, music director Matt Ray, a band of eight and NPR’s Ari Shapiro.

In the lead up to this week’s show, Machine Dazzle is the definition of booked and busy.

“I don’t have time to have goals because I’m already busy,” he says laughing.

Between shows at the Guggenheim and on tour with Taylor Mac, and a host of other engagements, time for him is truly a priceless commodity.    

Fortunately, while on location at Harvard University, co-directing and creating costumes for a queer cabaret show featuring six students who provide commentary on Harvard politics, I’m given time to hear of the artist’s thoughts on the holidays, why Holiday Sauce is a must-see and how Dazzle’s design style distinguishes from contemporaries. 

On Tap: How do you select your projects?
Machine Dazzle: Any opportunity to exercise the brain is good. I appreciate a challenge and I love meeting all these interesting people along the way and doing a project like this at Harvard allows me to do all those things. I am a yes person; I will always say yes. Unless I’ve worked with someone before and it just wasn’t great. I love new adventures and new people, but the job must be interesting and challenging. I need to be able to do what I want to do. I can’t have anyone who’s too precious about anything. There needs to be room for a layer of art, that may or may not necessarily exist in the script. 

OT: What’s novel or special about your contribution to the production on which you collaborate?
MD: I’m an artist in the realm of costume designers. What designers don’t really have is an agenda, they don’t necessarily have a story to tell. They are visual; they are engineers. An artist takes it further and tells a story and makes some social commentary. In other words, no one can tell me how to do my art. You can tell someone to make something for Bob’s character, but I bring a layer of art to the production.

OT: How do you explain the success behind your partnership with Taylor Mac?
MD: Taylor lets me do whatever I want. Never once has he told me what to do. He trusts me to bring something interesting to the table. A lot of people really love his costumes and that’s thanks to me, and thanks to him for letting me make my work. 

OT: What did Taylor Mac say when bringing Holiday Sauce to you?
MD: The first year, Taylor Mac came to me and said we’re doing a holiday show and we need two costumes. I knew that I wanted to distinguish these costumes from other costumes I’d made for [Mac] in other productions. I definitely wanted them to have a holiday flare, or my take on holiday. So, the first thing I thought of when thinking of the holiday was naughty and nice. I made one costume that was very naughty, and I made one that was kind of nice. DC’s show is different from the past two years, though, because he’s wearing four costumes this time. In addition to the other looks, I thought of two faces of the kitchen, one where you’re in the kitchen baking cookies, the other outside in a winter wonderland. 

OT: Are the holidays a special time for you?
MD: My birthday is during the holidays, it’s December 30.  People would always say, “Oh, no! You got cheated!” But they had it all wrong. When I was a child maybe it felt like that, but the truth is it’s the best time of year to have a birthday because everybody is in celebration mode. It’s a beautiful time of year to do anything. I’m not a religious person, I don’t believe in God. I believe the god is the self, the highest self-possible. We have the universe we have each other, we have microcosm and we have macrocosm. I believe in the winter solstice. I believe in the changing seasons. In the darkest day of the year, which lends itself to the season of giving, when people are in need. That’s what I think about during the holidays. [However] I love certain rituals and traditions. I love the decorated tree, I love leaves, I love lights, I love caroling, I love the onslaught of winter and preparing for the next year. It’s a really great time of year to have a party!

OT: What’s makes Holiday Sauce different from other seasonal productions?
Machine Dazzle: We keep building the show, every time we tour, we make it bigger and better. Plus, we’re bringing it to cities that we’ve never been to before. No one in DC has seen it before. There’s a choir in it and we want the choir to get bigger. I want the scenic elements to get bigger. The costumes are going to change and get bigger and better. It’s going to be more of an extravaganza. 

OT: What’s the secret sauce that has your audience or following growing with each additional year?
Machine Dazzle: You just have to keep coming back to see. It’s like the people who go to see the [Radio City] Rockettes show every year. It’s not that different every year. But you still go. They do it every year and people live for it. And if you can go and look at that every f**king year you can go to our show which is actually changing and getting better. 

Taylor Mac’s Holiday Sauce is showing at the Kennedy Center in the Opera House on December 12 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $39-$129 and here.

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

Photo: courtesy of the GMCW

Raising The Bar: The Gay Men’s Chorus Of Washington Promotes Inclusivity And Holiday Cheer

It’s evident that advocacy is ingrained in the fabric of the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington (GMCW), and that extends to their spirited The Holiday Show at Lincoln Theatre on December 7, 14 and 15.

“When people think of the holidays, they immediately think [of] Christmas,” says tenor and soloist Abel Jimenez, who is new to the chorus. “But no, this isn’t just going to be Christmas. There’s a lot of representation acknowledging different cultures, which I am very excited [about as] a Latino. Being able to sing in my first language with a group of people who are putting forth so much effort as well is very rewarding.”

If you peruse historical images of gay men choruses around the country, you’ll notice a trend of predominantly white, middle-aged men. But through intentional programming, the GMCW’s more than 250-member group grows more and more representative as each holiday season rolls around.

“Because of our location, we sometimes have greater opportunities to fight the good fight, to be in the trenches,” proudly states Michael Aylward, a tenor and soloist in his 11th season with the GMCW.

Aylward sees his role in the chorus as one of visibility, of “not being afraid to be front and center as an out and proud gay man.”

“I think what we do is important because we are in Washington, DC,” he says. “We have a responsibility as a gay chorus to be active and visible in moments when issues relevant to the gay population around the country are being discussed.”

GMCW Artistic Director Thea Kano places emphasis on actualizing the mission of the chorus: to inspire equality and inclusion with musical performances and education promoting justice and dignity for all.

“I consider what’s going on in the world [and] in the realm of social justice,” Kano says of her process for making song selections. “Our goal is always to be sure that audiences see a version of themselves onstage.”

Incorporating diverse voices remains an important means for facilitating inclusivity in the GMCW, while also staying current with what’s hitting the airwaves.

“We always try to have a mix of new music that might have been written recently,” she continues. “[This year], we are depicting different languages. [For example], a traditional Filipino carol will be sung in Tagalog, a language of the Philippines, [accompanied by] a traditional Filipino dance.”

While the concert’s lineup features songs in up to six different languages, Kano says, “The song list is mixed up.”

“It’s sort of like DC’s weather: if you don’t care for a particular one, just wait,” she adds. “Something for you is just around the corner. There are enough traditional songs sprinkled in – a little something for everyone.”

Expect everything from a little Mariah Carey to “Lo V’chayil” to Donny Hathaway’s “This Christmas,” and so much more. As the largest and most-often sold-out performances of the year, Kano says The Holiday Show is the easiest to program.

“There is so much good, fun music for the holidays,” she says.

Her only challenge? Ensuring that the sounds and performances are fresh and relevant. This year, the GMCW is keeping audiences on their toes with a 7-foot-tall Christmas tree in heels, among other yet-to-be-announced elements.

“People come expecting to be entertained,” she adds. “We’re known for putting on shows different from a standstill chorus.”

The artistic director’s enthusiasm is matched by Jimenez’s excitement to perform a solo in this year’s holiday concert. Not only does he feel very at home with the chorus, but his family will be at The Holiday Show to see the GMCW perform for the first time. When he first heard friends rave about the GMCW’s holiday concerts and went to see a few shows himself, he wasted no time in joining the ranks.

“You did not wait one second!” Jimenez laughs, reflecting on comments from his peers once he was named a soloist in his first concert months ago. “I wanted to jump in and do as much as I could because it’s my passion. Being a part of this community, being able to do good with my talents, it feels wonderful. I feel honored.”

Don’t miss the GMCW’s The Holiday Show at Lincoln Theatre on Saturday, December 7 at 8 p.m., Saturday, December 14 at 3 and 8 p.m., and Sunday, December 15 at 3 p.m. Tickets are $25-$65. Learn more and buy tickets at www.gmcw.org.

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

"The Day" // Photo: Hayim Heron, courtesy of Jacobs Pillow

The Day Tackles Life, Death And All In Between At The Kennedy Center

The expiry of life is a shared experience. Yet, though our existence is riddled with these life-ending and life-altering moments, we tend to struggle with the acceptance or articulation of this obligatory unknowingly path-dependent terminus.

Fortunate for us, world-renowned cellist Maya Beiser has initiated a two-part collaborative effort, where audience members visiting the Kennedy Center December 6-7 will embark on a partially guided journey named The Day. Here, onlookers will grapple with their acceptance of life, death and everything in between, depending on your religious or ideological beliefs. 

The conception of World to Come, the sequel of The Day, began forming during September 11, 2001, while American composer David Lang and Beiser were commissioned by Carnegie Hall to produce an evening performance.

The two were living in New York during the attack on the World Trade Center, and inspiration sprung from the unfathomable event, wherein the title of their work even emulates the acronym, WTC.

“The piece just became informed by that event,” Beiser says. “In particular, by this incomprehensible idea that there were thousands of people who woke up that morning, took the train or car and went to work, and a few hours later they were all gone weeks afterward. People in Union Square were just walking around sort of dazed with signs of their loved ones they were still looking for. People were looking for those who just kind of disappeared…that became the subject of this piece.”

The Day, was imagined after its sister title World To Come.

“We wanted to create this piece that is really about life; it’s really about the sanctity of memory,” Beiser says. “For this particular case, there were two compositions that were relating to death and September 11, something personal but also universal. I think super personal things are also the things that resonate with all of us on some level. We all, of course, have this predicament. We are all born and we are all going to die someday.”

The Day will feature three significant artistic expressions: Music, composed by Lang and performed by Beiser; dance, choreographed by Lucinda Childs; and performed by Wendy Whelan. Finally, there will be poetic texts crowdsourced online to reinforce the importance of memory.

“Three-hundred different people are answering the question, ‘If I remember the day?’ and it’s all these different memories from things that we think are super profound or super mundane, but they are all being told in this matter of fact and without any judgment [space]”, Beiser explains.

The text illuminated onstage is without a narrative, yet, naturally conveys, “what’s important and not important to us, and what it is that makes our lives and our human experience a community.” 

Beiser will tell you firsthand that she is a visual musician, “You know, I’m a musician but I always see music, I don’t just hear it. Music has a very large sonic visual palette for me. When I play and when I perform, the visuals are always important to me.”

“As I was recording [The Day], I kept imagining a women dancer who danced with and who would communicate with me.”

In true Beiser fashion, she elicits the prowess of former New York City Ballet Company ballerina turned associate artistic director,  Wendy Whelan, whom she came to admire since their meeting in 2010. “I thought she would be the absolute perfect person for this idea.”

Whelan joined the illustrious team without hesitation,.

“We just clicked personality-wise”, Whelan reminiscing over her early encounters with Beiser.  

Whelan’s international dance career spans more than 30 years, so we wondered, how does her experience impact her movements concerning the illustration of life and death? 

“It’s been interesting,” she says. “Since I left the New York City Ballet [as a principle dancer] five years ago, I’ve lost maybe five very very close friends. They’ve died very young, and I have to say, these experiences in dealing with this kind of lost have very much affected how I look at this work and what I bring to the work.”

“There’s sort of simplicity to [The Day]. I don’t overthink, I just dive into the work and almost relax into it. Because of my experiences and my age, I let go in life. I’ve let go of the ballet. I’ve let go of friends. The power in letting go is everything. We all want to control and we want to push through and hang on. The realization is that this sort of letting go of different chapters in our life or different people, it gets you to the next place. It helps us evolve and land with new wisdom. I’ve sort of learned the beauty and power in that, and I try to let that experience come through in my being.”

The Day is showing at The Kennedy Center, Eisenhower Theater, December 6-7 at 8 p.m. on both days. Tickets are $25-$69 and can be purchased online here.

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

The Cast of Fiddler on the Roof // Photo: Joan Marcus

Fiddler On The Roof Brings Sisterhood To National Theatre

Sisterhoods are quite common, whether they be biological, happenstance or through a rush at a sorority house. There’s something particularly precious about these seamlessly formed bonds that withstand the test of time. 

Consider your favorite predominantly women led stories; Golden Girls, Little Women, Insecure and Girlfriends. These strong female characters and intentionally feminine stories are sacred and significant in depicting a subsection of human existence.   

This is especially true for the three sisters of the Tony Award-nominated Broadway revival of Fiddler on the Roof, playing at DC’s National Theatre from December 10-15

“The magic of Fiddler is in the daughters,” Ruthy Froch says, explaining why she connects so well with her character and fellow cast members. “Doing the show so many times, our relationships only gets deeper in our onstage and off stage life.” 

Froch (Hodel) and Kelly Gabrielle Murphy (Tzeitel) have spent considerable time together, along with Noa Luz Barenblat (Chava) who joined the cast in August, and each express how being a part of this show is a dream come true. 

As the national tour nears two years, the trio’s friendship, cherished in a theatrical milieu, provides security in knowing they can rely on one another. 

“We’ve become our own community,” Froch says. “We’re our own shuttle outside the shuttle of the show. We live together, we travel together, we are experiencing life together.” 

Sisterhood is germane to Fiddler on the RoofSet in the Pale of Settlement of Imperial Russia during the early 20th century, the script follows the unsuccessful matchmaking of three elder daughters of Tevye, a poor Jewish milkman. Fixated on keeping with Jewish customs and traditions, Tevye is delighted by the prospects of arranged marriages devised by Yente, the village matchmaker. 

However, the hearts of his children have been won by those of who he considers unsuited suitors. Because of this universal theme, relating to this family is an easy feat.

“It’s incredible to see that no matter who you are or what your religious background is, or what your cultural or ethnic background is, everyone seems to find a way into this story and that makes it such a special production,” Barenblat says. 

She continues to point out how the dynamics played out in this allegory have emotional resonance overlapping generations and cultures. 

“I don’t even remember where I was when I first saw the movie, but I have such early memories of seeing the movie when I was young,” Barenblat says. “I know the songs, I know the story and I feel like it has lived in my bones for my entire life.”

Written in 1964, and now a 2019 production, the narrative has experienced a feel of timelessness.  “Since the show opened on Broadway, has been produced somewhere in the world every single day,” Kelly Gabrielle Murphy says quoting Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles, a documentary on the Broadway musical. 

“That shows how wide of a range the show has and how many people it speaks to,” Murphy adds. 

With the premise of the narrative, a lot of the play is focused on the balance of doing what’s right and keeping with tradition. 

“I think traditions are important,” Murphy says. “Being on the road, I grip on to my traditions with my family even more because we’re not with our families.” 

Barenblat adds, “the biggest pride I feel in my identity are the traditions I have with my family, a lot of which are related to my religion, Judaism, and I do think they are really important. This show really highlights the tension between maintaining your traditions, versus moving forward and exploring new cultures and being accepting of other cultures.” 

Being on the road with cast members, away from family, Froch mentions one shared between herself and Murphy. Before each performance, once departing the makeup chair, one shouts to the other, “See you in the kitchen!” 

“I think the title, Fiddler on the Roof explains traditions perfectly. It’s about the fine line between doing what you’ve always known and what’s in your bones and the dangers and shakiness of exploring other things, other traditions, the unknown. I think traditions are meant to be followed and also meant to be broken.” 

The Tony Award nominated Broadway revival of Fiddler on the Roof is playing at National Theatre, December 10-15. Tickets are $54-$114 and may be purchased here.

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

John Leguizamo // Photo: courtesy of National Theatre

John Leguizamo Uses Latin History For Morons As Hilarious Call To Action

John Leguizamo’s Latin History for Morons is a one-man show that begins in a way that used to make me roll my eyes when I witnessed it as a student: A tweed-clad teacher whirls into the spotlight, arms full of books, ordering students to quiet down, “we have a lot to get through today, there’s no time for fun.”

Except, where my teachers were overworked, underpaid, forced to prepare way too many listless students for one standardized test after the next, Leguizamo takes his audience on a side-splitting crash course in Latin history that should be taught in every school. Seriously. We need to hear this.

The profanity-laced Latin History for Morons also proves every comedian sulking about how “comedy is dead!” because no one laughs at their archaic, problematic jokes dead wrong. After a successful run on Broadway in February of last year, Latin History for Morons came to DC’s National Theatre for three days in November

The show covered the stories of long-ignored Latin historical figures that Leguizamo discovered while doing research. The story is part educational and touchingly autobiographical, detailing a difficult time in Leguizamo’s relationship with his son as he helped him face racist bullies and trouble at school.

The historical figures and stories that Leguizamo discovered were found in a desperate attempt to uncover a Latin hero for his son’s school project – and build confidence and pride in his cultural heritage. Discovering that he couldn’t find a single one in his son’s history book, Leguizamo hit the books himself. 

Leguizamo not only tells one compelling story after the next, he cites himself and comments on the books he used. His journey through history points out commonly overlooked facts, like that Spanish conquistadors didn’t defeat native tribes with superior military skills, but with the sheer force of their own diseases.

His show walks us through the DNA breakdown of modern Latin Americans, the specific tribes that lived in America before Christopher “Columb-ass” “discovered” it, colonialism and the horrors that colonists brought to the Americas. 

Although he takes us through history, Leguizamo doesn’t shy away from current politics. He tells the story of the selfish Montezuma, who betrayed his own people only to be tricked by “Putin, err, [Hernán] Cortés.”

The show also made fantastic use of props and costume. Leguizamo makes use of a chalkboard through the entire show, scribbling hilarious, haphazard maps and notes while he lectured. He drew his map of the Americas while nailing a Bob Ross impression, pointing out that DC, is where the impeachment hearings were happening to uproarious cheering from the crowd.

Leguizamo transformed himself from teacher to caricatures of historical figures with ease and creativity. His Andrew Jackson was created by running chalk through his hair. His Montezuma pranced around in red underwear while Leguizamo’s pants were used as a headdress later. 

When I was first assigned a one-man show, I was skeptical. How entertaining can one person on a stage be? But Leguizamo was rarely still. He danced, sang, scribbled on a large chalkboard constantly and never stopped talking, somehow only needing a couple of short seconds to catch his breath in between each bit. 

Despite Leguizamo’s energy and levity, the show took on some serious issues. While the conversation about representation is often focused on movies, TV shows and books, Latin History for Morons points out that erasure from the history books is kind of the first step. His call to action is for more comprehensive education that doesn’t vilify or completely ignore the existence and contributions of an entire race. As someone whose people are only ever portrayed as the bad guys in history books, it’s a call that resonates.

Leguizamo not only pointed out the erasure of Latinx people from American history, he also talked about how it impacts him. While re-enacting one of his own therapy sessions, Leguizamo’s therapist asks him: When you think of someone brave, who do you think of? When you think of a genius, who do you think of? And Leguizamo’s own answers were telling: They were all white people. 

My favorite bit, though, was one that truly unites us across cultures: la chancla. While portraying his mother, Leguizamo’s version of the flip-flop is one that soars across the room to teach him a lesson and then flies back into his mother’s hand like a boomerang. In Egyptian Arabic, it’s called a shib-shib, but either way, it’s a tool of discipline that strikes fear into the hearts of brown kids everywhere. 

Although Leguizamo’s “Latin History for Morons” is no longer playing in DC, you can still experience it the next best way: Netflix.

For more information on the National Theatre’s upcoming slate, visit the website here.

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

Jake Epstein // Photo: courtesy of Arena Stage

Jake Epstein Talks World Premiere of Arena Stage’s Dear Jack, Dear Louise

It can be a challenge for an actor to tap into a character, especially one from a different decade. But for Jake Epstein, playing a WWII soldier holds a special family connection. The former Degrassi star is portraying Jack Ludwig in Arena Stage’s Dear Jack, Dear Louise now through December 29. The play, based on the love story of playwright Ken Ludwig’s parents, is set in the middle of the war and told through the use of letters. We talked to Epstein to learn more about the world premiere of Dear Jack, Dear Louise, long-distance relationships and the DC theatre scene.

On Tap: What’s it like portraying a real-life figure? Especially the playwright’s father?
Jake Epstein: To be honest, I try to block out that I’m portraying the playwright’s father. Only because in the sense of the play, I have to think of it as a character I’m playing. I’m trying to approach it the way I would any play, but certainly, there’s a real responsibility to tell the story right and to make sure the playwright can feel good about it.

OT: How closely did you work with the playwright, Ken Ludwig?
JE: At the beginning, very closely. He’s an amazing and hilarious writer. He was around for all of our table reads where we did a lot of work talking about the history and going on the trip together. Once we got up on our feet and started working with the director [Jackie Maxwell], Ken said “I’m going to let you guys play.” So he kinda went away and he’s been in and out of the whole process.

OT: How did you tap into playing a WWII soldier? What does that era of history mean to you?
JE: When you’re playing somebody from history you try to gather as much information as you can. I’ve done a lot of research, listened to podcasts every day and tried to read what I can so that I feel I can be as authentic as possible. On a personal note, my mother [Kathy Kacer] is a pretty well-known writer and she writes mostly stories about the holocaust for young adults. Her parents, my grandparents, were both Holocaust survivors. My grandmother, I never knew and my grandfather, I only knew a little when I was young. But one of the amazing things about being an actor is that sometimes you’ll get to do a play that’s out of your own time and place, and in this case, getting to do a play during the second world war makes me feel connected to my grandparents.

OT: What books has your mother written about the holocaust?
JE: She’s written over 20 books. My favorite is The Secrets of Gabi’s Dresser, which is a story about my grandmother hiding from the Nazis. Since then, she’s written a lot of other books, one called Clara’s War. They actually use her books in Canada, and I believe they’re starting to in the states, when they’re teaching kids about the second world war in school. That time in history definitely means a lot to me and my family.

OT: Have you visited the Holocaust Museum since you arrived in DC?
JE: I’ve been twice before. I went when I was younger with my parents, and a few years ago when I was here with the national tour of Spring Awakening. I’ve been in intense rehearsal, so I haven’t gotten the chance to do too much in DC but I’m certainly hoping to.

OT: What do you think of the DC theatre scene? How do you like Arena Stage?
JE: I’ll admit that I haven’t seen very much other DC theatre, but I know that it certainly has a great reputation with really smart, savvy audiences. Getting to perform at the Kennedy Center [with the national tour of Spring Awakening] was one of the highlights of my life. It’s such a gorgeous building and it was one of those moments like “oh my god, I’m so lucky that I get to do this.” I mean Arena Stage has this reputation of being this amazing out of town try out. A lot of shows going to New York, Broadway got to try themselves out at Arena Stage. It’s got this real spirit of creativity and support that I’ve been really impressed with. The building is beautiful and its location, with being right on the Wharf, is really cool.

OT: The story revolves around your character Jack and a character named Louise in a long-distance relationship, do you have any experience with long-distance relationships?
JE: Yeah, I do. My wife and I were long distance for about five years before we got married. So I have a lot of experience dealing with long distance and the tragedy, frustration and comedy that goes into maintaining a relationship when you’re far apart from each other.

OT: In today’s world, do you think relationships via letters is still considered romantic or is texting much more practical?
JE: In today’s world, people date through social media and through online dating and texting. It’s a specific part of how people meet and interact. This play is just like the original texting, the original online dating. The difference is just that letters took over a week to get to each other but I love how the play has a sort of wink to where we are today,  but with the story of the real history of letters.

OT: Since the play is told through letters, does that change the way you interpret the script as an actor?
JE: Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that the characters are not speaking aloud what they’re saying. They’re expressing the letters that have been written out loud but at the same time, because it’s a play, because it’s a piece of theatre, we really thought to theatricalize the story and theatricalize the way letters can be used on stage. Our director has really encouraged us to make the letters spoken as realistically as possible.

OT: How is being in a world premiere play like Dear Jack, Dear Louise different from being in an established play or TV show, such as Spring Awakening or Degrassi?
JE: Definitely being in a world premiere is a different beat than being in something that is set in stone. The main thing being that the playwright is there so you can talk to him about moments that maybe aren’t working as well as they could. There’s the opportunity for the line tweaks or changes or discussion with what the intention was about certain lines with the person who wrote it. Whereas with a published play, that’s it. You have to make it work. On TV it’s actually similar to a world premiere, the writers are around and there are constant changes on TV. So if anything, being in the world premiere of a play is probably closer to doing a TV show.

OT: Speaking of Degrassi, my editor [Monica Alford] told me she had a big crush on your character. Do you often get recognized for that role?
JE: Tell her thank you very much! I do sometimes and I appreciate it. It makes me laugh every time.

OT: Why do you think Dear Jack, Dear Louise is a great love story? Why will audiences resonate with it?
JE: I definitely hope so. I hope audiences can relate to it. There’s a lot of truth in their love story, it’s a difficult love story. There’s a lot of banter, the two characters couldn’t be more different from each other. Jack is a shy, self-effacing, intelligent army medic who has zero experience with the ladies because he’s been in school his whole life. Louise is this outgoing, charismatic aspiring actress. They couldn’t be more different, yet somehow find each other and start to relate on this very deep personal level through letter writing. They actually have a lot in common and they start to need each other in a way they both didn’t expect. I think there’s a lot of truth in the love story and I certainly related to a lot of it in my own life. I hope audiences feel the same.

Dear Jack, Dear Louise opened November 21 and runs through December 29. Various times. Tickets begin at $41. For more information visit here.

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

Nova Payton in Newsies // Photo: Margot Schulman

Nova Payton Brings Power As Heroine in Arena Stage’s Newsies

Her name is Medda Larkin, and “she is in charge,” Nova Payton exclaims excitedly as she tells the joys of playing a brassy operatic and bluesy burlesque theater owner in Arena Stage’s production of Disney’s Newsies the musical.

Set in New York City in 1899, Newsies follows the adolescent newsboys who go on strike after newspaper owners Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, also known as the most powerful men in the country, raise the price for newspapers purchased by newsboys, who resale on the streets of Lower Manhattan.

Despite already being unable to earn a living wage, the newsboys are forced to pay double for an even now hard-to-sell newspaper.

Medda, the heroine of the tale, offers her theater as a safe haven for those youth struggling in the inner city.

“She is a powerhouse, who commands the room’s attention upon each entry,” Payton explains of the elaborate petticoats and headdresses she proudly wears to embody her character.

Medda requires the vocal prowess and tenacity of an actress with grit and worldly experiences, as she is based on the late Aida Overton Walker, a renowned musical theater performer, most known for her vaudeville performances and her marriage to George Walker.

Fortunately for director Molly Smith, Payton was available.

“I was called and asked about my availability, as here in DC, we audition a year in advance for each show,” she says. “So, they said they would like if I would sing in the show, and asked me to come in and sing with the music director Laura Bergquist, and here we are.”

From studying at the The American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York and touring the world as a backup singer for Roberta Flack to performing in 3 Mo’ Divas, seen on PBS, Payton was primed for this role.

“I grew up around performers all my life. From Mike Malone the co-founder of Duke Ellington [School of the Performing Arts] to Roberta Flack”, Payton shares. “It was wonderful being able to sit under these geniuses and be groomed.”

When asked about the significance of this play in today’s climate, and the connection it would have to older and younger audiences, Payton had plenty to say.

“When you think about the kids who are protesting about global warming and gun violence and gun control today, it’s the same thing the newsies were doing with the newspapers. It was a matter of life or death. If you raise the rates, what am I supposed to do? After I pay you all this money, what’s left for me? How am I supposed to survive and eat?”

Payton says the younger generations are responsible for a lot of powerful movements, whether back then or in today’s political climate.

“With gun control and global warming, it’s the same. Kids are afraid to go to school, children are dying. Back then as today, kids were the movement. They took the risks, the chances and didn’t worry about what would happen next.”

Newsies has been extended and will be showing at Arena Stage through December 29. Showtimes vary. Tickets are $45-$102 and can be purchased by visiting the Arena Stage Ticket portal.

Arena Stage: 1101 Sixth Street SW, DC; 202-488-3300; www.arenastage.org

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Samuel Adams) conducts his orchestra for the Viennese court in Folger Theatre’s Amadeus // Photo: C. Stanley

Folger Theatre’s Amadeus Deals With Questions of Hate and Immortality

When visiting the Folger Theatre located in the Folger Shakespeare Library on Capitol Hill, patrons will witness and appreciate the craftsmanship of five 15th Century styled harps reaching soaring heights, fixed within the dimly lit ligneous theatre. After a short time, visitors will soon come to realize these grand instruments evolve into a metaphoric prison cell restraining court composer, Antonio Salieri in his self-made abyss, where lies envy and resentment, his only comrades.

Set in 1823 Vienna, Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus, directed by Richard Clifford, opens with echoes of gasps and whispers, serving as rumors circling an empty 18th-century wheelchair. Two actors named Venticello enter expounding on the tales of events that took place thirty years prior. The play runs through December 22.

“Who killed Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart?”

The question is immediately answered, purportedly, once a seemingly aged Salieri, played by the dynamic Ian Merrill Peakes, takes his seat in the vacant chair. Rolling back and forth, Peakes delivers an almost believable performance as a man confined and matured by unforgiving transgressions. The alteration in his tone of voice, and the quivering words spoken, warrants audiences’ trust in his elder persona. Oddly, glimpses of humor and strength dissipate his “grandfather” façade, making for a unique transition to 1781 that monopolizes this modest 2-hour and 45-minute production.

For the 31-year old Salieri, Peakes fully embodies the stoic and oddly physically mature nature. Ranting on about his God-given gifts, his commitment to composing operas “in the name of God,” and his desire to reign as the supreme composer worldwide, Peakes’ endearing portrayal elicits feelings of empathy for someone fearing to lose their earned and widely coveted position on top.

Relying on hearsay, Salieri forms a notion of Mozart, played by the boyish Samuel Adams, that is inevitably disastrous to himself.

After meeting Mozart and witnessing his talents, that are far ahead of the times, Salieri begins to plot mischievously against Mozart.

In all honesty, Clifford’s recreation of Amadeus is genuinely clever. Capturing elements exemplified in the Tony Award and Oscar-winning renditions, Clifford brings forth a production that relies solely on the exquisite oratorical capabilities of its cast members, and the elegantly pristine garments perfectly positioning viewers in an 18th-century opera house.

Though music serves as the foundation of this story, and the source of contention, theatergoers should not expect live vocals or a grand orchestra, but rather recordings that manage to prompt well-deserving chills. Classical tunes and operatic arias play through the sound system and more than suffice in depicting Mozart’s musical prodigy and the growth in Salieri’s antipathy.

Perfectly parallel to Peakes’ menacing antics as Salieri, is Adams’ charming, yet infantile and vulgar disposition of Mozart. Personifying Mozart is a task Adams achieves with each breath. His occasionally nervous but often obnoxious shrill of a laugh and multi-color hair is both humorous and infectious.

Even though Adams prances and crawls onstage, spewing uncouth verbiage, he maintains an air of innocence that allows his unceasing advancements in his artistry.

Supporting Adams is Lilli Hokama as Constanze Weber, Mozart’s fiancée. Hokama introduces a lightness to the narrative that is needed to pierce the tomfoolery of Mozart and the bitterness of Salieri.

Sashaying around the stage, Hokama appropriately flits with grace as her garments adorned give nodes of lushness. Though she may be initially perceived as a dolt, with time, she proves to be quite a force to be reckoned.

When she rifles with the prospects of infidelity, her inner strength surfaces, paving a precise way forward during a patriarchal time.

In the original production and film, the themes within Amadeus hold firm, and Clifford’s take relishes in each one respectfully.

Brutal language is exaggerated perfectly, presenting the often-hidden crudity within aristocratic life.

Sex is referenced countless times as the source of inspiration in the artistic realm and is frequently deployed as a tactic enacting one’s power over another. God as the life-giver and taker is most haunting as lamentations transcend varying degrees of religious discourse. But all in all, the two themes that resonate most profoundly are hate and immortality.

I once heard that hating someone is like taking poison and expecting them to die. At the core of this theatrical masterpiece lies this fundamental truth. As Salieri hopes to live on forever through his musical accomplishments, his disdain for Mozart has the opposite effect. He marvels at the unending growth of Mozart, scheming continuously to undermine his success, only to spiral deeper into the void of unrelenting spite, where absolution is never achieved.

Amadeus is showing at the Folger Theatre located in The Folger Shakespeare Library through December 22. Tickets are $42-$85 and can be purchased online at www.folger.edu/theatre.

Folger Theatre: 201 East Capitol St. SE , DC; 202-695-7263; www.folger.edu/folger-theatre

The Company of the RENT 20th Anniversary Tour // Photo: credit Amy Boyle 2019.

RENT Brings Memorable Music, Moments to National Theatre This Week

“How do you leave the past behind / When it keeps finding ways to get to your heart?”

This lyric from the titular song seems fitting when talking about the 20th-anniversary tour of RENT. Since its opening in 1996, RENT has found its way into people’s hearts with  themes of love and acceptance. A pioneer for contemporary musicals, the show continues to resonate with theatre audiences more than two decades later.

RENT‘s narrative follows a group of struggling artists living in New York City under the 1990s AIDS epidemic. The show deals with social issues such as addiction and homophobia. Over the course of one year the character Mark, an aspiring filmmaker, records his friends as they experience fear, loss, hope and love.

Adapted from Giacomo Puccini’s opera La Bohème, Jonathan Larson’s rock musical has undergone countless adaptions over the years. Amid the show’s 12-year Broadway run, even a feature film starring several members of the original cast was released. After closing in 2008, the show eventually returned to Broadway in 2011. Currently, RENT is enjoying another national tour including this week’s run at DC’s National Theatre from November 12-17.

One of the actors touring with the production is Samantha Mbolekwa who plays the role of Joanne Jefferson. Joanne is a high strung lawyer who struggles with the flirtatious behavior of her performance artist girlfriend, Maureen.

“What I love about Joanne is what she really wants to be able to do is show on the outside what she can’t necessarily [show] because of her job and the way she was brought up, she can through hanging out with these really great artistic people,” Mbolekwa says of her character.

Mboleskwa’s favorite song to perform is “Take Me or Leave Me.” The flippant track comes at a pivotal point in Joanne and Maureen’s relationship.

“It’s iconic,” she says. “Me and Kelsey [Sweigard], who is my Maureen, have so much fun doing it together. I think we both keep each other on our toes. Every time that song rolls around, I just really look forward to it.”

It’s difficult to take note of RENT‘s tracklist without mentioning “Seasons of Love.” The tune has gone on to create a legacy of its own outside of the musical. The song asks “How do you measure a year?” and ultimately decide that life should be measured in love. On the song’s popularity, Mboleskwa believes it’s due to the big question the song is asking.

“How do you measure a year? In the song, you’re offered so many ways. I think that’s a question that sometimes people don’t even think about and then to hear it – it kinda puts you in your spot and makes you think. It has such a positive message.”

“Seasons of Love” also serves as a tribute song to RENT’s creator Jonathan Larson, who unexpectedly passed away the morning of the show’s first preview performance. The story of his life was chronicled in a documentary entitled No Day But Today: The Story of RENT. His work lives on in The Jonathan Larson Collection at The Library of Congress.

In addition to cementing Larson’s legacy as a great playwright, RENT also started the trend of rush tickets. Still used by popular plays and musicals, such as Hamilton, fans known as Rent-heads could receive discounted tickets to see the show.

According to Mboleskwa, this is a tradition the national tour still follows today,

“There are rush tickets for RENT, a lot of people don’t know that if you show up to the theatre two hours before, you can get front row tickets for $25. It all started when it was originally created in the 90s, it was such a hot commodity that people were camping outside of the theatre.”

In RENT’s 20-plus years on the stage, much of it remains true to the show’s original vision. The costumes, set and music are all taken from the original production. Mboleskwa explains that this is because the original creative team behind the show is still working to make it as memorable as ever.

“I think RENT is still relevant 20 years later because there are still reoccurring problems that the story had back then that are still happening,” she says. “People will always want to feel accepted and loved, and the show is all about acceptance and love.”

The 20th Anniversary Tour of RENT is at the National Theatre from November 12- 17. Showtimes vary. Tickets $54-$114. For more information about the run, click here.

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