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Love is never easy, in Rotterdam

A queer love story comes to Skylight Theatre

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(L to R) Ryan Brophy, Ashley Romans, Miranda Wynne and Audry Cain in Rotterdam at the Skylight Theatre. (Photo by Ed Krieger for Skylight Theatre)

There’s no shortage of theatre pieces about gay men – but if you’re looking for works that deal with the experiences of gay women or trans people, you’re going to be hard-pressed to find more than a few.

Fortunately, a play that explores both of these subjects is soon to appear onstage at the Skylight Theatre in Los Feliz.

“Rotterdam” is an import from the U.K., where it was first produced in 2015. It received a nomination for Best New Play at London’s Off West End Awards and won an Olivier Award (Britain’s equivalent of a Tony) for Outstanding Achievement in an Affiliate Theatre.

Written by Jon Brittain (who has authored several critically-acclaimed plays, as well as writing shows for Radio 4 and the Cartoon Network), it’s billed as “A queer love story about all of us…”

The plot concerns a lesbian couple, Alice and Fiona, who share a flat in Rotterdam. On New Year’s Eve, Alice has finally found the courage to email her parents and tell them she’s gay. But before Alice can hit “send,” Fiona reveals that she has always thought of herself as a man – and that now she wants to live as one. This bombshell announcement sends their 7-year-old relationship into a tailspin, setting the stage for a comedy with powerful questions about love and identity at its core.

Playwright Brittain says about the work, “Everything I’ve ever written has had some kind of comedic angle to it. To entertain someone is an excellent way to open them up to new thoughts. This story is an optimistic one. Given what’s happening in the world today, I think we need a bit of optimism.”

The production is directed by Michael A. Shepperd, the Ovation-winning co-Artistic Director of L.A.’s Celebration Theatre – which he describes, accurately and with great pride – as “the oldest lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender/queer/questioning/intersex/two-spirited/allied/asexual/cisgender/non-gender-binary theatre in the country.”

He says he was drawn to the play by the fact “that it’s a beautiful love story about two women – and we don’t see that onstage a lot.”

He also like that it’s about having the courage to be yourself. “To live your truth out loud can be dangerous,” adds Shepperd. “But to take that step into your authentic self can make you much more powerful than anything the world can throw at you. ‘Rotterdam’ explores that, as well as asking the question, ‘Can we live our true authentic selves and still be loved by the people around us?’”

That question, as expressed in Alice and Fiona’s dilemma, feeds into the show’s universal appeal.

At its heart, he says, “Rotterdam” is really about change. “In any long-term relationship, there’s a series of changes you go through; and either you change together, to move forward, or both of you change and you move apart. It can be very difficult sometimes – and it’s something that anyone can relate to.”

He’s not alone in his enthusiasm for the play’s inclusiveness. “What’s been very cool is that I’ve had people coming out of the woodwork to help. I have five trans people working on the project, I have two lesbians working with me to make sure the scenes between the women are accurate and honest; it’s been one of those things where everyone who has read the script has fallen in love with it and wants to be a part of it – which is what our community should be every day.”

As to how the show addresses our current cultural climate, at a time when we are seeing a rise in transgender stories within our popular culture (“Transparent,” “Boy Meets Girl,” “Orange is the New Black”), even as the regressive attitudes of the Trump era threaten to push back against our hard-won social progress, Shepperd says “Rotterdam” takes a non-confrontational approach. “It’s not a political play. It’s not about the trans or lesbian or queer community. We’re not approaching as a ‘trans play’ or a ‘lesbian play.’ We’re asking, ‘What is the story, and what is the message that it’s telling us?’ But I think that now, more than ever, these types of stories need to be told, so that people will see them and hopefully open their minds about what other communities, outside of their own, are like.”

“Rotterdam” by Jon Brittain opens at 8:30pm Saturday, November 11th and plays at 8:30pm on Fridays and Saturdays; 2:00pm on Sundays; and 8:00pm on Mondays through December11, 2017. Skylight Theatre is located at 1816 1/2 N. Vermont Ave, LA, 90027. Tickets are $15 – $41. Reservations: 213-761-7061 or or 866-811-4111. Online at http://SkylightTix.com

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Gay playwright- “Marilyn, Mom, & Me” is his most personal play yet

Marilyn, Mom, and Me, a buzzy new show written & directed by Luke Yankee, playing Feb 16 to Mar 3 at the International City Theatre

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Marilyn, Mom, and Me at the International City Theatre in Long Beach stars Laura Gardner stars Brian Rohan, Alisha Soper & Laura Gardner. (Photo by Paul Kennedy)

By Rob Salerno | LONG BEACH, Calif. – The year is 1956. The biggest star in the world has defied the Hollywood studios and critics who dismissed her as a dumb blonde to spend a year studying acting with the greatest teachers of the era and has returned to launch her own production company with a film adaptation of a kooky Broadway play.

Along the way to making a classic film, Bus Stop, Marilyn Monroe begins a fraught and intense relationship with costar Eileen Heckart, one of the era’s most celebrated actresses. 

That rocky friendship forms the basis for Marilyn, Mom, and Me, a buzzy new show written and directed by Heckart’s son Luke Yankee, playing Feb 16 to Mar 3 at the International City Theatre in Long Beach, CA.

Yankee says the play stems from his attempts to come to terms with his own rocky relationship with his mother by understanding the deep connection she had with Marilyn Monroe.

“To the day my mother died, she could never talk about Marilyn without bursting into tears,” Yankee says. “I knew there was something very personal there and something very deep and that Marilyn had touched her in a way that no one else ever had.”

Marilyn, Mom, and Me stars Laura Gardner stars as Heckart, alongside Alisha Soper as Marilyn. Soper has previously played Marilyn on three different TV shows, including Ryan Murphy’s Feud: Bette and Joan and American Horror Story.

I’m not just saying this, but many people feel [Sopel] is the best Maryland they have ever seen. I mean, she captures the voice, the walk, the intent,” Yankee says. “[Gardner] has probably seen everything my mother has done at this point and she so captures my mother. I mean, it’s uncanny.”

The fact that Soper has played Marilyn in so many different projects points to the incredible staying power Monroe has had in the public imagination. But despite decades worth of books, movies, plays, televisions shows, television shows about plays, and even an upcoming play based on a television show about a play based on Marilyn Monroe, Marilyn, Mom, and Me still finds a relatively unexplored are of the icon’s life to bring to the stage.

“People have said to me, ‘what could you possibly tell us about Marilyn Monroe that we don’t already know?’ But almost everything is about her relationships with men – JFK and Arthur Miller and all of that,” Yankee says. “I don’t know that there’s really anything else about another woman who was a contemporary of hers and who was really on equal footing.” 

“One of the ironic things is that this was at the time that Marilyn was the biggest star in the world and she wanted what my mother had. She wanted to be taken seriously as a legitimate actress.”

At the time, Marilyn had just spent a year studying with Lee Strasberg, and she had become the poster child for his “method” style of acting, which required actors to feel authentic emotions in their performances. As Marilyn and Heckart were playing best friends in Bus Stop, Marilyn was determined to become close friends with her in real life to enhance her performance. 

“At first my mother was like, ‘okay, who’s this starlet who’s glomming on to me and making me feel very uncomfortable?’ But the two of them really bonded through their wounds. For as much as they both achieved, because they were both adopted, neither of them ever truly felt that they deserved a place at the table,” Yankee says.

But the heart of the show is in Yankee’s difficult relationship with his demanding mother. Heckart, an Oscar, Emmy, and Tony-winning actress, prepared Yankee for a life in the theatre from a young age by being highly critical and expecting excellence in everything he did. 

“From the time I was eleven years old doing children’s theater in the basement of the YMCA, she would critique my performances like I was Laurence Olivier at the Old Vic. She’d sort of take a drag on her cigarette and say, ‘What the fuck were you doing on that stage?’” Yankee says. “Over time I realized that the good intention behind that was to make me a better actor and to toughen me up for the business but at age 11, I just wanted to supportive mom to tell me good job kid.” 

Their relationship grew strained when Yankee came out to his mother. Even though Heckart knew many gay men from her work on stage and screen, she found it difficult to accept her own son being gay at first.

“For a woman of that era there were no positive role models. I mean gay people were all either alcoholic or suicidal or promiscuous or all three,” Yankee says.

But despite the hard times, Marilyn, Mom, and Me is a tribute to Yankee’s mother. While the play reveals heretofore unseen sides of Marilyn Monroe, the stories it tells also help contextualize the difficulties in Heckart’s own life, and how they shaped both her incredible career and her relationship with her son.

Marilyn, Mom, and Me plays Feb 16 to Mar 3 at the International City Theatre in Long Beach, CA.

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Rob Salerno is a writer and journalist based in Los Angeles, California, and Toronto, Canada.

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New play Arrowhead: a minefield of queerness, feminism, & identity

Catya McMullen’s new farce follows what happens when a committed lesbian finds herself accidentally pregnant

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Amielynn Abellera, Stefanie Black, Kacie Rogers, Adrián González and Nate Smith (Photo by Jeff Lorch)

By Rob Salerno | LOS ANGELES – Playwright Catya McMullen knows she’s navigating across landmines with her new play Arrowhead, a farcical drama about a lesbian in a committed relationship who finds herself accidentally pregnant and throws an abortion party with her straight friends at a cabin in the woods – which becomes even more complicated when her queer friends and her girlfriend find out.

Produced by IAMA Theatre Company at the Atwater Village Theatre and opening Feb 8, Arrowhead probes volatile subjects like identity, feminism, and who belongs in the queer community with a comic touch that McMullen says she hopes will help audiences probe their own beliefs.

“I’m a comedy writer through and through. I try to find the profound in the stupid and the stupid in the profound. My artistic mission is to use humor to access vulnerability, and that runs a very large gamut,” McMullen says. “I always want to want to laugh my way into personal truths. I get to the heart of my own whatever existential despair actually through comedy and that’s definitely a huge part of the tone of everything that I write.”

McMullen says the play was inspired by her own experience discovering she is bisexual after having identified as a lesbian her whole life.

“My experience has been that there’s a bit of a holy trinity of of what I want sexually, my identity, and community, and this play is very much about what happens when what you want conflicts with those three and also your feminism,” she says.

Talking with McMullen, it’s clear she’s aware that she’s steering through treacherous territory – not just because the subject matter includes hot-button issues like abortion and feminism, but because she’s also, essentially, crafting a coming out story for a bisexual woman.

“That’s part of why I wanted to write this play, because it’s not ‘look at how alienated bisexuals can be.’ It’s like, look at the complicated politics and matrix and the fabric of all that,” she says.

The twist in Arrowhead’s approach, that the protagonist Gen is navigating a new identity within the queer community, still feels like relatively underexplored territory in queer storytelling.

“I think a lot of us, especially in our mid-30s, can suddenly have a moment where it’s like, who I thought I was is not totally true. And I think that there’s a kind of bravery of stepping into it,” she says.

“I’ve experienced a lot of biphobia in finding my place in the queer community, especially when I started out. There was something that happened with the lot of the queer women in my life, especially the lesbians, where, in certain ways, because I was in a relationship with a man, I became less safe, and simultaneously, I deeply understood why.”

And McMullen says Arrowhead is careful to consider points of view that complicate the ‘coming out’ narrative and the drive for acceptance on inclusion. 

“I really wanted to make sure that perspective, life experience of what is so precious about some of these hard lines and the community that you find when you’re when you’re gay,” she says. “Arrowhead is sort of like my love letter to queerness.”


Arrowhead plays at Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave, Los Angeles, Feb 9-Mar 3. Tickets available here.

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Rob Salerno is a writer and journalist based in Los Angeles, California, and Toronto, Canada.

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Kayden Alexander Koshelev, a triple threat on stage & screen

Koshelev is currently feature in A Christmas Story: The Musical, on stage at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles until December 31

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Courtesy of Kayden Alexander Koshelev

By Rob Salerno | LOS ANGELES – At just fourteen years old, up-and-coming actor Kayden Alexander Koshelev has already built up an impressive resume, with appearances in Zachary Snyder’s sci-fi Netflix blockbuster Rebel Moon, the HBO comedy Search Party, as well as How I Met Your Father and 9-1-1: Lonestar.

A true triple threat, Koshelev is currently feature in A Christmas Story: The Musical, on stage at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles until December 31. 

The Los Angeles Blade caught up with Koshelev after a matinee performance of A Christmas Story to talk about the stage, space opera, superheroes, and where he sees his career going.

What’s it like performing in a show that’s based on a classic film? Are you a fan of the movie? 

Oh, it’s absolutely amazing. Everyone’s super great. I love this show so much. I have seen the movie a bunch of times, like it’s a Christmas tradition.

I started doing theatre when I was pretty little. I did Shrek, High School Musical and I did Oliver a couple times. I did A Christmas Carol three times. 

You recently were in the cast of Drag: The Musical [based on the concept album by Alaska Thunderf*ck]. What was it like to be part of that world?

It was a new show, and it won best new show of the year [at the Queerties], which I was absolutely amazed by because it was it was really, really fun to work on. We did it at The Bourbon Room, and I think I can say I think it’s come it’s coming back to the Bourbon Room [next March 15-31, 2024]. 

How is the process different when you’re creating a new show versus stepping into a classic story?

Creating something like brand new like that, there’s definitely a lot more pressure. It’s like you set the tone not only for this character but for this show. So it’s a lot bigger. 

How do you how did you feel about that?

I was still super excited because I’m so happy to be like, not technically the original, but the first one to do this show. They had someone else do the soundtrack, which came out before the first show run. 

You’ve been doing like a lot of film and television as well. What’s the difference for you, doing television versus doing a stage show?

I feel like doing television is a lot more stimulating because it’s very much like, you’re here, you’re doing this. You have to learn your lines. Boom. Well theater is more of a process. So I feel like they’re very different but I love them both a lot. That’s it. 

Do you have like a favorite project that you’ve worked on?

I love pretty much everything I do for different reasons. I would say that I probably prefer TV stuff a little bit more. Actually, I don’t know there’s both so fun. I think everything I do is something I love doing. 

You were just in Rebel Moon, which is probably the biggest project you’ve been involved in so far. What was that like? 

There was a huge Premiere. Actually, it was crazy. I was like sweating and like it was ginormous. 

What’s it like working on a movie like that?

It was actually crazy. You had no idea. I was on a different planet. There were these horses and they had the green screen on their faces to make them look like other animals.

Was the whole set green creen?

Yeah, but a lot of it was real. A lot of the things that you see… had little green screen things, but the thing itself was real.

Obviously it’s very different to do a space opera film versus a show like this where it’s very grounded in the real world. Do you find that more challenging? 

I love doing all the different types of things in a way because then I could be like check, check, and each experience is something entirely different. That’s whether I’m on Earth or Veldt. 

How do you find balancing all of those different things that you do? 

Balancing is actually probably the biggest challenge for me because I have my social life. I have school. I have acting, TV shows, musicals. It can be a lot. I can get really stressed out sometimes, but I just feel grateful.

Rather than stressed out. I try to feel grateful rather than stressed out because I know that a lot of people would love to be doing what I’m doing. 

Courtesy of Kayden Alexander Koshelev

What are like, what are your like Ambitions as an actor or performer? Like what are things that you dream of doing?

I kind of just ride the wave pretty much. I just want to keep acting and pretty much until I can’t because that is what I know. I love to do it, and I know that it’s what I will hopefully always be doing so my goal is just to feed me and see how far I can go. 

Do you have a dream role?

I would love to be either regular or lead in a Sci-Fi film, because I love I love sci-fi worlds. Oh, actually actually I’d love to be like a recurring superhero. That’s everything that I like to watch. 

Do you have a favorite character?

Yes, Scarlet Witch. Yeah. I love Scarlet Witch because she’s just the strongest. I’m really sad that they gave her a villain Arc, which it was coming, but I think she’s still alive.

Do you also see yourself continuing to do musicals?

For sure. I love musical theater, so it’s gonna be a part of my life for sure.

Do you have a favorite show?

Ah, asking a theater kid what their favorite show is? Oh, I don’t know.

I do really like Beetlejuice. I love the show that I am doing right now. I love Hamilton, but who doesn’t?

What’s something you’d like our readers to know about you?

A lot more goes into things than meets the eye with a lot of work like this. A lot of things can be like four or five seconds, but a lot of work could go into that specific moment.

I love the color pink. I like to wear pink a lot. I’m in more of like a pink and blue phase right now on my looks. 

I love playing video games, like really normal video games. I love to call my friends and text them stuff like that.

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Rob Salerno is a writer and journalist based in Los Angeles, California, and Toronto, Canada.

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Oscar-winner Tarell McCraney, new Geffen Artistic Director

The Moonlight co-screenwriter says he wants the theatre to be artist-centered, while attracting top-name talent

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L-R: Artistic Director Tarell Alvin McCraney, Executive Director / CEO Gil Cates, Jr. and Board Chair Adi Greenberg. (Photo by Jeff Lorch)

By Rob Salerno | LOS ANGELES – Tarell Alvin McCraney has lofty plans for the Geffen Playhouse, which announced him as its new Artistic Director last week. 

The openly queer playwright who won an Oscar for co-writing the 2016 film Moonlight based on his own earlier play, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, says he wants the theatre to be a place that centers artists’ voices while building on the theatre’s location in Los Angeles to attract big name talent. But he also wants the theatre to draw in more young audiences from neighboring UCLA and he promises to continue commissioning work by LGBTQ creators. 

With a career that has included being a member of Chicago’s famed Steppenwolf Theatre, playwright-in-residence at the Royal Shakespeare Company, serving as Chair of playwrighting at the Yale School of Drama, and a Tony Award nomination for his Broadway debut Choir Boy (which was produced at the Geffen in 2014), the 43-year-old playwright has the deep connections across the national theatre scene as well as in Hollywood that just might help him pull this vision off.

The Los Angeles Blade sat down with McCraney to talk about how he sees the Geffen Playhouse fitting into the LA art scene, and why live performance remains so relevant to today’s audiences.

Blade: Why are you making the transition from playwrighting to artistic directing? What made you want to run a theatre?

McCraney: That kind of vision-setting is something that I’ve always done. I certainly will admit that doing it at a major theatre was not on my bucket list. But then something started to happen. A lot of the ways that we were creating theatre began to be corporatized and we started to think in corporate ways and business models. For art making, that can get convoluted. The moment we get into very strict rules about theatre and how it should get created, we get into trouble. We leave no room for expression. And that has been happening in part because leadership hasn’t been by artists. 

And now I have a whole heap of friends and colleagues who are artists running theatres, saying we need to work in collaboration with each other, in order to make sure that the artists of the future are nourished and told that their voice is necessary. All of our companies, even in TV and film, are run by the imagination of the artists, and to put that at the center is really investing in our future.

What is your vision for the Geffen? 

The Geffen already does something pretty amazing. It is that fulcrum in the entertainment industry. There are a lot of film and tv folks who make up our audience and the artists who are on our stage. That feels like we have a role to play in the ecosystem of the great many theatre artists who come out to LA to pursue film and television and also still deeply want the roots of live performance to be honored, and the skills that come with that to be sharpened.

We also have about 30-40,000 audience members across the street who may not have been inside of our playhouse or experienced their first live performance, and we’d love to make sure that that is part of their education. I’m talking about UCLA. We want to make sure that we invite them in to experience what it is to have a live performance affect you and change you and make you think and anger you and call you into action. We also know that a good percentage of those folks are the artists of tomorrow. We want to make sure that they know that they have a space.

How is Los Angeles different from the places where you’ve made theatre in the past?

It’s the center of the TV and film industry in our country specifically. And yes, there are certainly theatre actors who work in film and television in New York and Chicago. 

In LA the majority of folks who are in our audience and on our stages work in the film and television industry in some way, shape or form. What that gives us as a playhouse is a place where we can say, hey, theatre is important to you. It’s the first thing you did in your life. It’s the first experience you had in dramatic storytelling. It’s the bad theatre games that led you to this moment playing this role on Wandavision. Now you want to get back on stage and you want to remind yourself what it means to be in Hamlet and why that story is important, in film and television, but also in live performance. What does that do? What part of your humanity is invigorated by doing it in front of people night to night?

Because we have so many people in our community who come from that tradition and background, it makes no sense to me to bifurcate that but to integrate it. 

You obviously bring a certain star power to the theatre. Do you think that’s important for Los Angeles audiences? 

Name recognition is important for sure. Someone could take that negatively. I hear, “Oh, I like the way that person tells a story. I’ve followed them for a long time.” 

I’d love to make sure that there are a cadre of artists that folks can say, “Oh yeah, they’re at the Geffen pretty often. I love to see them there,” or, “I saw their first play there, and it’s really interesting to see what they do next. I’m coming back for that.” I think it’s important to audiences everywhere. We like to train up with people. You’ve seen that actor before that you’re like “he was in that thing!” You like to watch that versatility. 

Samuel L. [Jackson] was in The Piano Lesson. One, I love The Piano Lesson. Two, I love Samuel L. And I was like, I have to see this, because this is one of my favorite people telling stories and in a way that I rarely get to see him do it. 

I understand the guilt, because people can feel consumerist, but it really is an age-old tradition. You want  to see that person tell the stories. It is exciting to say I’ve seen that actor on so many things, but I’d love to see them live.

Does the Geffen need to find new audiences?

So does every industry. Even in streaming, we know we gotta grow their audiences. What I don’t think we should be doing is chasing after the audiences who’ve said they’re not going to sit in the theatre anymore. I think there are people who’ve gone through a very rough time the last three years, who’ve said, “Y’know what? One of my biggest things is going to be being outside, or travelling, or moving to that place that I didn’t think I could.”

What we have to do is reinvest in the 60% of audiences that have come back and said, even during that limited capacity, “The thing I wanted to get to most was this engagement here in the live theatre. It’s important to me, it’s a part of the tapestry of my life, so I’m here.” 

Why is theatre relevant in 2023? 

It’s the difference between [being there and] hearing, “Oh, you had to be there…”

I tell this story all the time about Peter Brook’s Hamlet in Chicago [in 2001] with Adrian Lester. It’s the first Shakespeare production I’ve seen at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. I’m seeing this fly zipping around, and Adrian Lester, who is delivering the most eloquent Shakespeare I’ve ever seen, at some point in the middle of it, I think he’s doing one of his great speeches, he [catches the fly in his hands, shows it to the audience and wipes it off], and continues going on as if nothing happened. I think it was during “To be or not to be.” Talk about timing. You just had to be there. 

I remember my best friend Glenn Davis, the artistic director of Steppenwolf, and my friend André Holland who was in Moonlight, we all saw that production, that performance, and we’re all still saying, “You had to be there,” this performance 20 years ago, to see this fly driving Adrian Lester wild. I know that’s still relevant to folks. 

We have a show right now at the Geffen called Every Brilliant Thing, and it’s really interesting to see folks who are jostled by how interactive it is, and how much the audience talks to the performer. And those who really lean into it, who are like, “Yeah, this is why I come. I can’t just lean back and eat Cheetos, while you divorce someone or run for president. I have to be here right with you as you work out this very complicated thing in your life.”

What can queer audiences expect from the Geffen under your tenure? 

Thankfully, the artistic leadership before did a pretty good job of forging ahead with queer stories in our space. I can speak to Choir Boy when we did it all those years ago. But since then, there’s been multiple plays and paradigm-breaking ways in which we engage our queer stories particularly. I’m speaking of The Inheritance, when we had that block party with community partners.

One of the things I’m challenging us to do is to make sure that when we do invite audiences – queer, black, brown, Asian – into our space, that they do know that we keep something on hand for them. That it’s not just that in June we have this ‘out’ play, but that we have something year-round that… may not be specifically about a topic, but it’ll have enough that it’ll encourage, delight and engage everyone. 

We can’t have a play in February for Black History Month and then be like, “Oh, we got our Black audience in, but now what?” We have to make sure that audiences feel like we program with you in mind. The play may not be about your particular home, but it is engaging the world you live in and wanna live in. 

Do you think we’ll see more commissioned queer works, or productions of queer-themed plays? 

For sure, on our roster of people to commission there are same-sex loving folks, there are people who are transgender. We are absolutely leaning into that. 

Are we going to see new Tarell Alvin McCraney plays at the Geffen? 

That’s an easy Yes. Selfishly, that’s why I took the job. Directors always take these jobs and go, “I’m gonna direct the thing I never got to direct.” There’s a bunch of things I want to write for the theatre and I just need the time and space to do it. Maybe I’ve hoodwinked the Geffen into letting me do that. I’m very excited about it.

What are you excited to write about?

I definitely want to write about marriage and my weird feelings around it. If you just look at the things I’ve been writing about for twenty years, they’re all the same: queer people, finding love, finding a voice. That’s not going to change. Just different avenues. 

I’m excited to see that as a 43-year-old man who keeps going, “Should I get married? Is marriage for me? Isn’t the point of being queer not to get married? Aren’t we revolutionary? Is it a tool of the state or whatever, or is it really a romantic thing that I’m missing out on?” I want to grapple with those things. and I think the intimacy of our spaces is the place to do it. 

As soon as I can get the time to write it. 

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

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Rob Salerno is a writer and journalist based in Los Angeles, California, and Toronto, Canada.

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The spirit of Sondheim enchants sparkling ‘Into the Woods’

For those who love that kind of thing there is no joy quite like watching or for that matter, merely listening to a Sondheim musical

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Gavin Creel and Katy Geraghty in 'Into the Woods,' now playing at the Ahmanson Theatre throuh July 30 - photo by Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade

Though the late Stephen Sondheim is now regarded as part of the highest pantheon of Broadway Musical icons, he had a surprisingly small number of hits. His longest running show was his first as both lyricist and composer, “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” which closed in 1964 after 964 performances, and even his most successful shows across the next five decades had comparatively short runs.

The reason, of course, is that Sondheim simply isn’t for everyone; his musicals were edgy, challenging, looking to push the boundaries of storytelling in musical theatre; his songs were as dense with layers of meaning as they were with his precocious wit, and not a word or note was wasted. For those who love that kind of thing, there is no joy quite like that to be found watching – or for that matter, merely listening to – a Sondheim musical; for those who don’t, it can feel a little too much like doing homework instead of spending an evening at the theatre.

Even if that sounds like you, “Into the Woods” – the late composer’s classic musical now playing in a revival production at the Ahmanson – might stand a chance of winning you over. The show itself, which originated in a 1986 production showcasing Bernadette Peters, reimagines a handful of (mostly) well-known fairy tales to explore what happens “after the happily ever after”; it also features some of Sondheim’s most “audience friendly” music, framing the cleverness and insight of his lyrics with the kind of “hummable melodies” he was often accused of omitting from his work, and that, coupled with the easy familiarity of the subject matter, makes it arguably the most accessible show in his canon.

The aesthetically stripped-down staging now at the Ahmanson was  first mounted as part of the New York City Center’s “Encores” series before transferring for a Broadway run in June of 2022 – where it earned not only enthusiastic critical acclaim but six Tony nominations, to boot. Judging from what we saw at the Ahmanson, it’s easy to understand why.

Forsaking an elaborate scenic design in favor of a highly stylized, fairy-tale-suggestive setting in which the orchestra occupies most of the upstage area, songs and scenes are played out with almost as much left to the imagination as if the show were one of the “staged concert” renderings of Broadway musicals that have become popular within the last decade or so; yet in spite (or perhaps, because) of its emphasis on what is to be gained from the material rather than on the Grimm-Brothers-gone-camp trappings of story’s deceptively cute, gimmicky concept, it manages to deliver all the stealthy resonance of Sondheim’s words and music while still preserving the tongue-in-cheek charm of its reimagined fairy tales with crystal clarity.

We won’t spoil the fun for those unfamiliar with the show (and who haven’t seen the lukewarm movie version); suffice to say that it merges together some tales you know – Cinderella (Diane Phelan), Little Red Ridinghood (Katy Geraghty), Jack (Cole Thompson) and the Beanstalk, and others – and intertwines them with one you don’t, in which a childless baker (Sebastian Arcelus) and his wife (Stephanie J. Block) make a deal with the witch next door (Montego Glover) to gather ingredients for a mysterious potion in exchange for her granting their wish for a baby.  In James Lapine’s astute, sharply honed script, these old tales are infused with adult perspective, diving deeper than their simplistic cautionary messages to explore a few of the more nuanced and subtle dangers that await us “in the woods,” even as these somewhat fractured fables wind their way toward the happy endings we expect.

It doesn’t stop there, though. Act Two picks up where things left off, as the consequences of all the characters’ choices come back not only to disrupt their newfound happiness, but to turn their whole magic kingdom into a disaster zone. It’s here where Sondheim and Lapine hit us closest to the heart, sweeping aside the generational “wisdom” of the original tales to reveal a moral more suited to a modern age, in which the traditional bonds of kinship are often forged with the families we choose rather than the ones we were born with – and in which the stories we tell, to our children and to ourselves, may well matter more than they ever have.

Along the way, there is lots of comedy – of course, how can one resist poking fun at the conventions of fairy tales? – and even more music, including now-classic songs like “Children Will Listen” and “No One Is Alone”, the latter of which became an anthem of hope and comfort during the AIDS era that was in full bloom when the show originally debuted.

Thanks to concise staging and guidance from director Lear deBessonet, a uniformly superb cast (many of whom are continuing in their Broadway roles), and a perfectly balanced sound mix that brings out all the detail of the scoring while keeping every word spoken or sung onstage completely audible, it provides the “brainy” fun we associate with Sondheim – but it’s also gleefully entertaining. It captures all the cheeky humor of the show’s absurdist conceit, even enhancing it with surreal design touches – most notably the use of onstage puppeteers to bestow life upon (among other things) a flock of friendly birds and “Milky White,” the decrepit cow who becomes an audience favorite from her first appearance – yet remains grounded enough to ensure that the emotional punch of the second half feels not only sincere, but earned.

Standout moments are plentiful, but some of the high points include “I Know Things Now,” as sung by Geraghty, whose steamroller interpretation of Little Red overall garners plenty of audience chuckles; “Giants in the Sky,” delivered by Thompson’s endearingly daft Jack; “It Takes Two,” which warms the mood though the easy chemistry of real-life-married-couple Arcelus and Block; “Last Midnight,” in which Glover gives the Witch she’s made completely her own a showstopping final exit from the stage. Mention must inevitably made of Gavin Creel, whose double turn as both the Wolf and Cinderella’s Prince gives him a scene-stealing chance to show off his multiple talents, as well as Phelan’s down-to-earth Cinderella, whose every-girl approach brings a refreshingly contemporary perspective into the forefront. A final nod should go to veteran actor David Patrick Kelly, a delight as the narrator with more of a connection to the story than it seems.

These are just the most prominent players among a cast with no weak links; the complete ensemble as a whole is more than enough reason to recommend “Into the Woods,” on the strength of combined talent alone.

There’s so much more to be appreciated, though – there aren’t many musicals that can deliver giddy hilarity, heartbreaking tragedy, and unexpected epiphanies that jolt us into recognition, all without losing their warm and friendly charm – so don’t miss your chance to see this one while it’s still here.

Even if you’re not a Sondheim fan, it will be one of the highlights of your summer.

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‘A Transparent Musical,’ pioneering queer series for the stage

The show, now performing its world premiere run at LA’s Mark Taper Forum through June 25, is a retelling of the story of the Pfefferman clan

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The cast of A Transparent Musical in the world premiere of 'A Transparent Musical' at Center Theatre Group, Mark Taper Forum May 23 through June 25, 2023. (Photo credit: Craig)


LOS ANGELES – It might seem a little out of the ordinary to begin a review of a theatrical production by discussing a TV series – but in the case of “A Transparent Musical,” it’s the logical place to start.

The show, now performing its world premiere run at LA’s Mark Taper Forum through June 25, is a retelling of the story of the Pfefferman clan, the secret-laden, deeply dysfunctional and very Jewish LA family at the center of “Transparent,” a now-iconic, pioneering Amazon series that premiered in 2014 and ran for 4 critically-acclaimed seasons before ending with a special feature-length “Musicale Finale” in lieu of a fifth.

In its original form, the saga began with the coming out of Maura Pfefferman to her children as a trans woman – a bombshell revelation that that sends the privileged, self-absorbed family reeling. From there, it charted Maura’s transition into the proud trans matriarch she always knew was inside her, as well as the struggles of her former spouse (Shelly) and their children (Josh, Sarah, and Ali) to navigate life – both as a family and as individuals – in the aftermath.

In later seasons, the focus shifted more to youngest child Ali and the search she undertakes for her own identity, and after the controversial departure of series star Jeffrey Tambor, the tale finally culminated with Ali’s creation of a musical about her family’s history.

While the final episode won its share of critical praise and accolades and gave fans of the series some form of closure, many viewers couldn’t help but feel a sense of anti-climax; for them, the circumstances around Maura’s departure from the narrative (which we won’t go into here, you can look it up if you don’t remember) left something of a bitter taste in the air, and while the renewed sense of hope and healing it delivered for Ali, her siblings and her mom were appreciated, the fact that Maura wasn’t allowed to get there with them felt, well, unfair.

While the actor who played her may no longer have been suitable to continue the journey, the character deserved a much better fate, and the audience who had rooted for her over the course of four seasons deserved her to have it, too.

With that in mind, one might go into “A Transparent Musical” – co-written by series creator Joey Soloway and MJ Kaufman, with music and lyrics by Soloway’s sibling Faith – with reserved expectations. Indeed, what would a musical adaptation of this sprawling narrative, with its complex social and cultural themes and its extended cast of intertwined characters, even look like? Could it even be possible for them to fit 41 episodes of television storytelling into a two-and-a-half-hour stage version?

As it turns out, they didn’t even have to try. Instead, “A Transparent Musical” reimagines the entire story of the Pfeffermans into a streamlined, standalone experience that can be enjoyed and appreciated without any knowledge of the series whatsoever. Instead of placing Maura (played here by Daya Curley) at the center of the story, it’s young Ali (Adina Verson) who becomes our point of entry; tasked with helping to mount a play for her Jewish Community Center’s Purim carnival, she finds herself drawn into a voyage of self-discovery, recalling key moments in her family’s past and drawing connections between their story and the multi-faceted cultural and ethnic heritage that sprawls out behind them.

Gone are most of the side trips taken by the series, along with many of the non-Pfefferman characters, and what’s left is a scaled-down retelling that manages to feel just as complete – if not more so, given that Maura is now allowed to be included in the ending – as the series that fans grew to love.

Of course, trimming things down to that extent inevitably means sacrificing a lot of nuance, and that has an impossible-to-ignore impact on the show’s first act, which is lengthy to begin with but feels even lengthier because of it.

One of the challenges of “Transparent” was that its protagonists were all messy, self-centered, unreasonable, compartmentalized, dishonest, stubborn, spiteful, even sometimes deliberately cruel to each other – in short, all of them, including Maura (sometimes especially her), were often difficult to like.

The saving grace was the show’s ability to let us see into the deepest corners of each of their lives, where we could recognize and relate to the wounded humanity hiding behind all those walls of defense; here, without the luxury of such detailed exploration, their unpleasantness sometimes makes it tough to care whether they work things out for themselves or not.

But of course, one doesn’t have to like or even care about characters to find aspects of oneself reflected in them, and their relatability goes a long way toward keeping us invested enough to stick around after intermission – and that’s fortunate, because it’s in the second act that “A Transparent Musical” blossoms into the fully realized manifestation of Soloway’s story we never knew it needed to become.

Without giving spoilers, the second half employs flights of fancy – devised and expanded from elements included in the series – to bring together all the Pfeffermans’ struggles and crystallize all the story’s themes into one cathartic bundle.

By the time it’s over, the acceptance, forgiveness, and yes, transcendence that has happened on stage leaves us to ponder questions of our own identity, and how being seen for who we really are makes a big difference in our ability to see others that way, too.

As directed by Tina Landau, the production bursts with colorful, exciting imagery and inventive staging that helps us easily follow the jumps in time and place that occur within the show’s immersive setting – which, designed with tongue-in-cheek authenticity by Alan Rigg, puts the audience in the middle of a JCC auditorium.

Faith Soloway’s songs may not linger melodically in your brain in the way typically expected of showtunes, but their lyrics are clever, insightful, funny, and successfully transmit complicated threads of language and ideas without letting us lose track of any of them; coupled with James Alsop’s crisp, high-energy choreography, it’s a combination that delivers a welcome injection of high-spirited musical theatre fun.

As for the cast, a diverse and talented ensemble that seems to be having the time of their lives, they are uniformly excellent. Verson deserves special mention for carrying the show’s narrative responsibilities without distancing themself in the process, as does Curley for inhabiting Maura so completely that we easily forget any previous incarnation of her.

Liz Larsen has multiple show-stopping moments as “what about me?” mom Shelly, as does Peppermint (in the dual role of Davina and Darlene), whose powerful vocal prowess brings down the house more than once – a feat also accomplished by Kasper as Ezra. Standout moments aside, however, the entire company should truly be considered joint stars of the show.

It could go without saying, perhaps, that a show like “A Transparent Musical” is highly important to be seen in a time like ours, as vicious backlash from extremist bigots grows ever more alarming and politicians pander to homophobia with regressive and harmful legislation.

There are moments in the show that address this growing volatility, an element which brings a fresh sense of urgency to its message of acceptance – something it makes much easier to swallow by showing us that feeling comfortable in your own skin is an essential human need extending far beyond the importance of gender, sexuality, race, or any of the other external factors we use to divide ourselves from others.

Even so, and despite multiple themes that are bound to be uncomfortable – even potentially triggering – for many audiences, “A Transparent Musical” is not a bleak show, nor does it dwell on the political terrors of the larger world, even if it acknowledges that they are there. It goes without saying that many of our readers will consider it a must-see piece of theatre, simply by virtue of its messaging and the need to be visible; rest assured that even if you’re going because you feel like you have to, you’re probably still going to enjoy it, too.

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A queer Hollywood homage takes the stage for Pride month in ‘Back Porch’

If you are a fan of theatre, & you also happen to be a fan of classic movies, & you also happen to be queer, then Pride Month in LA holds a special treat for you

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Jordan Morgan and Isaac W Jay in BACK PORCH at the Victory Theatre in Burbank - Photo by Keira Wight

BURBANK, Calif. – If you are a fan of theatre, and you also happen to be a fan of classic movies, and you also happen to be queer, then Pride Month in LA holds a special treat for you.

From June 2 – July 9, Burbank’s Victory Theatre Center will be the venue for the world premiere of “Back Porch,” a new play by Eric Anderson that uses an imaginary scenario within a real-life slice of moviemaking history to tell a very queer story – one that pays delightful homage to a beloved Hollywood classic as well as the playwright behind the work that inspired it.

The setting is a small Kansas town and the year 1955, when a Hollywood movie crew descends upon the community to shoot scenes for the classic film, “Picnic.” 

According to the synopsis:

Barney Opat (Karl Maschek) is the widowed father of two boys: 18-year-old Gary (Isaac W. Jay), who yearns to escape small-town Kansas life for a more glamorous existence, and energetic 13-year-old Del Wayne (Cody Lemmon). The family’s life is upended when a handsome stranger working as William Holden’s stunt double (Jordan Morgan) blows into town alongside the all-star cast. Other characters include the Opats’ bachelor boarder, singing teacher Myron Uhrig (Eric Zak), and their neighbor, Millard Goff (Jonathan Fishman).

Needless to say, sparks start flying (in more ways than one) almost immediately.

Playwright Anderson – who was himself born and bred in Kansas – says he remembers being 4 years old when portions of “Picnic” were filmed near his home.

“My family drove to the location one evening to take part in the ‘Neewollah’ scene on the river. I’ve been crazy about movies — and theater — ever since. With “Back Porch,” I wanted to pay tribute to a significant American playwright who was also significantly closeted. I hoped to write the kind of play that he himself might have written had he lived in another time and place.”

Jordan Morgan and Isaac W. Jay in Bluestem Productions ‘Back Porch’ at Victory Theatre Center in Burbank – Photo by Keira Wight


The play is directed by Kelie McIver, another Kansas native, who goes as far as to call it a “love letter to William Inge.” She also calls it “a terrific ensemble piece in which each character has an interesting and beautiful arc. I love them all and want to hang out with them.”

“Back Porch” is presented by Bluestem Productions. In addition to Anderson and McIver, the creative team includes set designer Kenny Klimak, lighting designer Carol Doehring, sound designer Cinthia Nava, costume designer Molly Martin, stunt/fight choreographer Brett Elliott and intimacy director Amanda Rose Villarreal. The stage manager is Margaret MagulaDavid Willis and Kelie McIver produce for Bluestem.

For information and to purchase tickets, call (818) 533-1611 or go to the production’s website.

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Peppermint to shower LA in her brand of sweetness

Los Angeles, here is your chance to hear her & see her. ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ finalist hits the stage at Mark Taper Forum May 20- June 25

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Peppermint is coming to LA in May. (Photo courtesy Peppermint)

HOLLYWOOD – Two years ago, Peppermint gave us a clear picture about who she is, making a point to tell us in her song “A Girl Like Me.”

“She’s strong and doesn’t take it from nobody.”

As a finalist in the ninth season of “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” Peppermint came in fourth and was eliminated during the actual filming of the show. The production company had a change of heart though, and put her back in for the finale cutting her elimination from the broadcasted version.

She may have lost that competition, but she won something bigger: history. She was the first out trans person to compete on “Drag Race.” A year later, RuPaul came under fire for saying that only transgender queens who had not yet had surgery, as Peppermint had not at the time, could compete.

She was not amused. She tweeted an emoji with a big zipper across its mouth in response. The next day, RuPaul recanted and reversed his policy.

“A girl like me is not always seen as equal, and sometime not one at all… And when trouble comes she’s the first one to take the fall.”

Recently she was trolled on social media after the horrible shooting at a Christian school. A rightwing nut craved to find and trash a real transgender person expressing compassion for the nonbinary Nashville shooter.  He did not find one so instead, he created a fake tweet and attributed it to Peppermint to construct a “trans people as unrepentant killers” narrative. 

The fake tweet cautioned potential trans killers to wipe their social media clean before committing heinous acts, and thereby protect Peppermint and the community. The message was callous, and a fraud.

Peppermint locked down her Twitter account to “private” (no more Twitter post screenshots to doctor for you). She posted, “People are still photoshopping fake screenshots.” She then took over the narrative: “Attacking my character with words I NEVER tweeted. I’m heartbroken about the terrible shooting in TN. I believe access to guns is a major factor in gun related attacks. anti-trans comments misgendering me don’t deter me from uplifting people from marginalized communities.” 

“A girl like me can light up any party.”

The Peppermint party is coming to us, Los Angeles. Peppermint is lighting up the stage at the Mark Taper Forum where she will star in “A Transparent Musical” from May 20 thru June 25. The musical is the comedic version of the Pfefferman family story, whose patriarch is finally allowing their true selves to emerge as Maura, the transgender matriarch she always knew she was. Based on the hit Amazon Prime original TV drama show “Transparent” by Joey Soloway, “A Transparent Musical” takes the Los Angeles Jewish family in a funny and musical direction making them “Universally relatable, imperfectly human, and startlingly familiar.”

 Peppermint is originating the role of Davina. The part in the series was first created by Alexandra Billings. As Davina, Peppermint runs programming at the local Jewish Community Center and is the confidant of the lead character Maura. Ultimately Peppermint helps tell the story of family secrets that unearth a story of self-discovery, acceptance, and celebration. 

“And girls like me are scared and angry, but we always find a way to smile…”

Not to be confined to live theatrical performances, Peppermint bursts onto the Netflix scene in the series, “Survival of the Thickest,” which centers on the character of Mavis Beaumont played by Michelle Buteau, who wrote the book on which the series is based. 

Black, plus-sized and newly single, Mavis unexpectedly finds herself having to rebuild her life as a struggling stylist. Peppermint portrays a social media influencer and owner of the local drag restaurant. Funny, super sassy and caring, Peppermint’s character acts as the “adopted” drag mother of Mavis.  

“A girl like me knows how to live her truth.”

If those projects aren’t enough, Peppermint lays her truth out for us in “SO-SIGH-ETY Effects,” her first stand-up comedy special available now on Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV, Google Play, YouTube, Vimeo, and cable providers worldwide. In the special, she takes the audience through an all-inclusive New York journey looking at what it’s like to be a single Black transgender woman in today’s society. Peppermint promises laughter and tears as she recounts tales of love and heartbreak from the stage to the bathroom stall.  

“The girl who strives for good but ends up so misunderstood.”

Peppermint is not just here for the spotlight and the business of show however. She is the ACLU’s first-ever Artist Ambassador for Trans Justice and has raised six-figure sums for prominent LGBT rights groups. She has partnered with MAC Cosmetics’ “M.A.C. AIDS Fund” and is involved in the HIV Vaccine trials network. She joined “RuPaul’s Drag Race” winner Sasha Velour for a college speaking tour that focused on the challenges faced by transgender and non-binary people in today’s political climate. She was nominated for a 2022 GLAAD Media Award in the Outstanding Online Journalism category for her contribution to the Discovery+ “Legendary” series (an award won by the Los Angeles Blade in 2023). Previous honors include; GLAAD Media Award nomination alongside Lady Gaga & Kehlani for Outstanding Music Artist (2021), “Best Songwriter” by World of Wonder’s Wowie Awards 2020, Conde Nast’s “Queeroes” award (2018), Variety’s prestigious “New Power of New York” list, and was named one of Out magazine’s “OUT100” portfolio of the most influential LGBTQ people of the year.

At the end of “A Girl Like Me,” Peppermint pleads:I just need to be heard, to be seen, do you know what I mean? Would it hurt to try and see, if you could love a girl, love a girl like me, the girl who is fighting for her life?” 

Los Angeles, here is your chance to hear her, see her, laugh with her, cry with her and love her, and let’s face it. 

Peppermint is the exact flavor of sweet we need right now.

**************************************************************************

Rob Watson is the host of the popular Hollywood-based radio/podcast show RATED LGBT RADIO.

He is an established LGBTQ columnist and blogger having written for many top online publications including The Los Angeles Blade, The Washington Blade, Parents Magazine, the Huffington Post, LGBTQ Nation, Gay Star News, the New Civil Rights Movement, and more.

He served as Executive Editor for The Good Man Project, has appeared on MSNBC and been quoted in Business Week and Forbes Magazine.

He is CEO of Watson Writes, a marketing communications agency, and can be reached at [email protected] .

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New LA production finds the trans heart of iconic ‘Spider Woman’

There are still discount tickets available through LA Theatre Week. “Kiss of the Spider Woman” performs at A Noise Within

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Ed F. Martin and Adrian González in KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN at A Noise Within- (Photo by Craig Schwartz)

LOS ANGELES – Most of us are probably aware of “Kiss of the Spider Woman” either as an acclaimed 1993 stage musical by “Cabaret” and “Chicago” composers John Kander and Fred Ebb and queer playwright Terrence McNally, or as an acclaimed 1985 film starring Raul Julia and William Hurt – the latter of whom became the first actor to win an Oscar for playing a queer character (and also the first of 8 straight-identifying actors to win for playing queer, but that’s another story).

Many of us also know that before any of that, it was a 1976 novel by Argentinian author Manuel Puig, who wrote it while living as an exile in Greenwich Village after a military coup d’etat placed his native country under the rule of a brutal and repressive military dictatorship.

What most of us DON’T know, perhaps, is that before the mainstream success of the novel’s now-classic film and stage adaptations, there was another version of the story, adapted into a 1983 play by Puig himself and translated into English by Allan Baker for a 1985 London premiere starring Simon Callow and Mark Rylance.

It’s that adaptation of the work which is now onstage at LA’s A Noise Within theatre company, and its timing couldn’t be better – because while the book’s more famous adaptations, each a product of their time and limited by a lack of existing language in their efforts to fully explore its complex themes about sexuality and gender, might feel a little dated to many of us 2023, a fresh take from a more informed perspective is all that’s needed to do justice to the material and reveal the authentic queer voice that has been inside it all along.

For those who need a refresher, “Spider Woman” is an intimate, two-character drama set in a Buenos Aires prison cell, where Valentin – a macho political prisoner whose commitment to the Marxist cause takes precedence over everything else – is thrown together with Molina – a queer, movie loving dreamer who escapes the harsh reality of prison life by retelling the stories of his favorite film noir classics and drawing inspiration from their glamorous leading ladies. The two cellmates are mismatched, to say the least, but they somehow manage to form an unlikely relationship.

In his press notes for the new production, Michael Michetti sees the dynamic between these two diametrically opposed characters – who, stuck together in an oppressive environment, grow to understand, even to love each other – as a crux which “takes on new relevance in today’s polarized climate.” He also points to the surprising amount of humor and playfulness contained in the story, as well as the importance of language in driving it.

Language is particularly crucial for a version that tells the story without the help of the kind of elaborate conceptual conceits and visual storytelling aids available to a big-budget film or Broadway musical – and that means the burden of using it effectively falls on the two actors playing Valentin and Molina: Ed F. Martin and Adrián González, respectively.

The Blade spoke with both of them about the challenges they faced in tackling two roles already made famous in the public imagination by the novel’s high-profile previous iterations, and their answers underscore all the reasons why “Kiss of the Spider Woman” is still, perhaps more than ever, an essential touchstone for queer culture.

For Molina, it was all about finding the right understanding of Molina.

“Previous versions did not affect me, or at least I didn’t borrow from them. I saw the film way back when, and I was even in a production of the musical — playing the Warden of all things. But I just kind of came in as myself – and a little bit of my mother – and dove into the rehearsals with whatever Adrian and Michael brought to the table. And the deeper we went, the more I fell in love with Molina as a person.”

“I come into this as a Latino gay man,” he explains. “I thought of Molina as a gay man, but in reading the novel and breaking down the play, I came to recognize that Molina could be a transgender woman – it’s hard to say definitively, today being so different from 1975, but I think Molina thinks of herself as a woman, and she emulates the glamorous women of the 40s and 50s from the films she loves so much.”

As for González, he tells us he wasn’t familiar with either the musical or the film.

“I’ll admit that when I was auditioning for the role and doing some research, I watched a few scenes from the film. I didn’t find anything special to hold on to – I love Raul Julia, but we are different people, and honestly I think the story the film is telling is different from the story we are telling. For me, Valentin is a man who is passionate in his beliefs and would do anything to help change the world for the better. That was the thing that struck a chord with me.”

Elaborating, he explains, “Our approach for the characters – particularly Molina – is what makes our story special and very relevant today. We treat her as a trans woman, in a time and world where there was no language or acceptance of her – and she ends up finding it in an unlikely person like Valentín, which is what makes this story truly special.”

Martin agrees. “These two people are polar opposites in their views, but in an enclosed space they are forced to get to know each other, to hear a different point of view, to learn from each other and, finally, to find common ground or a connection. Looking at where we are today as a country – politically, socially, culturally – the play might teach us a thing or two about how to treat each other with respect as we go back and forth expressing ourselves and our opposing values, or philosophies, or whatever we call them. The thing that really makes it relevant is the need for listening.”

González concurs, chiming in, “We can’t seem to agree on issues that truly are basic human rights, and a willingness to have conversations and listen to each other is completely off the table, there’s just a lack of empathy for one another. And meanwhile, the rights of people within the LGBTQ+ community are being attacked.”

The story’s potential as a catalyst for change even extends to the actors themselves. As Martin tells us, “I have loved getting to know and figure out Molina, letting that character be who they are without labels regarding sexual orientation, or gender identity, or anything. There are many reactions Molina has in the story that I have myself in real life – for good and for bad – and, interestingly enough, it made me wonder about myself. As I said, I identify as a gay man – but thanks to this role, I am wondering now if I even need that label?”

González, summing up, expresses his hope that audiences find their hearts and their minds equally opened by experiencing “Spider Woman” with them.

“I believe that theatre, and stories like this one, help shape the world we live in. Whether we agree or not on certain issues, if we’re able to face each other with empathy and an open heart, we can help change the world together.”

“Kiss of the Spider Woman” performs at A Noise Within, 3352 E Foothill Blvd, Pasadena, from April 1 – 23.

Tickets and more information are available at the theatre’s website.

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“Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992” is a uniquely “LA” play

“Twilight” features a multi-racial ensemble, each of whom endeavors to deliver honest portrayals of a dizzying array of characters

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L to R - Sabina Zúñiga Varela, Hugo Armstrong, Lovensky Jean-Baptiste, Jeanne Sakata, and Lisa Reneé Pitts (Photo by Craig Schwartz)

LOS ANGELES – “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992” is a uniquely “LA” play. That may seem an obvious assertion – after all, it’s right there in the title – but in this case it designates far more than just setting.

Originally conceived, written, and performed by Anna Deavere Smith in 1993, it’s a chronicle of the riots – or the uprising, as it is now known by many – that took place in Los Angeles following the acquittal of four LAPD officers accused of beating Rodney King during his arrest; it was a prolonged eruption of civil unrest that was national news, but for the people of LA it was a deeply traumatic experience that left lingering scars. For that reason alone, a performance of Smith’s piece in Los Angeles feels a little more personal than it might if were taking place anywhere else.

When you factor in the additional significance that comes with the 30th anniversary of that seminal, culture-shaking disruption to our city’s sense of identity, it’s clear to see why the production now onstage at the Mark Taper Forum – the very venue where Smith originally mounted the work – might strike a particularly resonant chord for Angelenos.

Directed by Gregg T. Daniel, the new “Twilight” – adapted by Smith herself in the wake of the George Floyd murder to allow production as an ensemble piece rather than a solo performance – is keenly aware of its home field advantage, which it supplements with a production design featuring imagery of familiar local sites on projection screens which frame and visually dominate the stage. Along with the script’s frequent use of LA-centric street names, lingo, and cultural references, it’s enough to make the experience feel as much like a town hall meeting as it does an evening of theatre.

That’s built into the original material, of course. Created by Smith from transcriptions of approximately 300 interviews she personally conducted, it offers a daunting array of conflicting opinions and opposing perspectives from a wide, multi-ethnic swath of real-life individuals impacted – either directly or indirectly – by the riot, which gives its voice the unmistakable ring of authenticity and roots it inextricably in LA’s shared cultural experience. Three decades later, it also amplifies echoes that have been reverberating louder ever since America watched a Black man being murdered on television in the middle of a pandemic.

Since a videotape – one of the first to capture police brutality against a person of color (POC) and expose it to millions of pairs of American eyes via broadcast television – was the catalyst that sparked the Rodney King riots, too, it’s hard not to be struck by the obvious symmetry.  

“The resonance just doesn’t go away, says Daniel, speaking to the Blade about why reviving Smith’s iconic piece feels so chillingly apt in 2023. “You think, doing a play that’s thirty years old, ‘is this a museum piece?’ – but unfortunately, this is a play that can never get old, as long as these atrocities keep happening.”

He went on to explain, “The last few years, thanks to cell phones and the internet, we’ve been exposed to so much violence by law enforcement against Black and brown bodies. There was George Floyd, of course, but also Ahmaud Arbery, Breanna Taylor – the names just keep on coming. Even as we were going into rehearsals, Tyre Nichols was murdered in Memphis.”

It goes without saying that many of today’s audiences are coming to Smith’s work with a renewed sense of – at the risk of inviting pejorative corruption of the word (and the concept) from conservative nay-sayers – “wokeness” and a firmly-held interpretation of the “right” and “wrong” attitudes toward the acknowledgment of systemic racial inequality; but as Daniel points out, one of the defining features of the original piece is its refusal to resort to easy judgments.

“She’s not trying to ‘indict’ one side or the other. She just presents LA as it is; these are verbatim accounts of a time we are still trying to come to grips with, they’re not monologues or things that were composed, they are individual expressions of a real experience. She’s not trying to take up sides, she’s just presenting the way things are. Your relationship with it as a community member, living in America – this is what we have, and we have to deal with it.”

That refusal to fall into an easy perspective is what raises “Twilight” above the level of pure emotional propaganda. It’s not difficult to frame the cultural upheaval over Rodney King or George Floyd in terms of literal Black-and-white simplicity, but to face the myriad underlying complexities that contributed to the way each of these incidents played out in the public consciousness requires a less dogmatic mindset than that.

Without implying the validity of such reactionary counter-points as “ALL lives matter” or other such “what-about-isms” that are often substituted for rational responses in the debate over anti-BIPOC police violence, the material’s measured dispensation of contradictory-yet-equally-authentic viewpoints from a multi-racial and often-diametrically-opposed sampling of LA voices makes a strong case for the argument that the use of excessive violent force against anyone, regardless of ethnic origin, is an issue that goes beyond race.

That’s a key point, as far as Daniel is concerned, when it comes to recognizing the scope of the discussion “Twilight” invites. Yes, it centers on systemic violence against POC, and the complicated racial infighting – particularly between the Korean American and Black communities, pitted against each other by circumstance and economic inequity in the communities they frequently co-habit – that so often obscures the deeper problems that underlie it from our view; but ultimately, in the wider scope, the stigma of “otherness” that infests our social and cultural systems and extends far beyond our untenably divided stance on racial equality and institutional reinvention presents a threat to the well-being of any community – whether defined by race, beliefs, gender, sexual orientation, or any of the other surface differences we use to separate ourselves from one another.

As Daniel puts it, “Bigotry and hatred and violence, once it’s perpetrated against African American bodies, can be perpetrated against any bodies. It’s not a big leap to say that violence perpetrated against Black and BIPOC communities is violence against all communities that they deem as not being ‘American’ – it’s not even a stone’s throw away for them to feel the same way about Asian Americans, or Pacific Islanders, or Jewish people, or LGBTQ+ people. I mean, they’re trying to outlaw drag shows! Really? They think THAT is the problem?”

In a pointed counterpoint to such sentiments, Daniel’s production of “Twilight” features a multi-racial five-person ensemble, each of whom endeavors to deliver honest portrayals of a dizzying array of characters ranging across the wide and diverse blend of ethnicity, gender, sexuality, ideology, and status that makes up the personality of Los Angeles itself. All of them have transcendent moments, in which the play’s emphasis on humanity over tribalistic loyalty shines clearly in the forefront; even so, it can’t be denied that splitting the original’s one-person format into a concept that divides its dozens of roles among multiple players has the undoubtedly unintended effect of diffusing the material’s power; there’s something profound about a single voice giving expression to a multitude of individual experiences, and while the same feeling may be stirred when the number of voices expands, some audiences may find it is inevitably diminished in the process.

Still, the production at the Taper delivers a powerful punch, and it’s no surprise that its single most electrifying and devastating moment comes when the videotape of Rodney King being savagely beaten is played silently for a shocked and palpably moved audience. Perhaps more importantly, it offers a comprehensive crash course on the facts around one of America’s most significant cultural crises (and one of LA’s darkest moments) of the last half-century, and fills in the blanks for those too young to remember the real-life event. Most of all, though, it confronts us with an unpleasant truth, and leaves us less sure of where we stand than when we entered the theatre.

As Daniel frames it, “If we’re going to be a city that lives together, how do we relate to what’s on the stage? Our intention with ‘Twilight’ is not to point fingers, or to chide, but to say, as an LA community member, an Angeleno, what is your relationship to these events?”

That’s more than enough reason to see it – in fact, it’s enough to make it essential for any Angeleno coming to grips with their own relationship to the so-called City of Angels.
“Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992” continues through April 9.

Discounted tickets are available through April 2 as part of LA Theatre Week.

Tickets and more information can be found at the  Center Theatre Group website.

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