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A Deceased Disco Diva Sings Again

Anthony Wayne (r) and cast

Anthony Wayne (right) and cast

Sylvester’s incredible life story becomes an Off-Broadway musical

Sylvester is one of history’s most fabulous pop stars. Back in the ’70s, the flamboyant diva scored with disco hits like “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” and “Do Ya Wanna Funk,” belting out songs in a powerful falsetto and blithely defying gender roles. (When Joan Rivers called him a drag queen, he vehemently rejected the label and replied, “I’m not a drag queen! I’m Sylvester!”). Along the way, he also performed with San Francisco’s legendary Cockettes, became one of the few out gay performers of his generation, and worked as an early AIDS activist before succumbing to the disease in 1988. His life is a remarkable story, and now it’s the subject of an Off-Broadway musical.

Mighty Real: A Fabulous Sylvester Musical at Theatre at St. Clement’s was written, directed, and co-produced by a pair of dedicated first-timers, Anthony Wayne and Kendrell Bowman, who are also a real-life couple. Though they’re huge fans now, neither had even heard of Sylvester until Wayne came across an Unsung episode about the singer while flipping TV channels one night in 2011. “He was such a trailblazer,” Wayne says. “I was so inspired by his desire to be himself. His career was short but very impactful; he paved the way for so many others but got ‘lost in the sauce’ as I like to say. I started listening to his music and then singing his songs, and from there it just kind of evolved.”

Wayne, a Broadway chorus vet who’s appeared in Pippin, Anything Goes, and Priscilla Queen of the Desert, initially resurrected Sylvester in a series of concerts with fellow gypsies Anastacia McCleskey and Jacqueline B. Arnold playing his big-voiced back-up singers Izora Armstead and Martha Wash, better known as the Weather Girls. (“They sang “It’s Raining Men” in Priscilla, and if that wasn’t a sign to do this I don’t know what was!” Wayne says.) After touring around the country and playing clubs in NYC, Wayne and Bowman decided to take the performance to the next level and turn it into a book musical. But though they raised seed money through Kickstarter in early 2014, they realized it was going to take more than a little help from their friends to mount a full-fledged production. That’s when Bowman took to Twitter to solicit high-profile support.

“I had a long list of people to try to reach out to: Whoopi Goldberg, RuPaul, Melba Moore, Martha Wash and Sheryl Lee Ralph,” he says. Ultimately, Tony Award-nominee Ralph signed on as a co-producer… but only after Bowman tweeted her regularly for four months. “The tweet I sent Sheryl was simple, something like ‘Please view our promotional video and please retweet,’” he says. Eventually she did, and after a brief correspondence, Bowman and Wayne met her in person. “It was 9 in the morning when she picked us up wearing a big fur coat and red lipstick, fully done!” Bowman recalls. “We sold the show to her that day, and ever since she’s been so hard working, helping us to get the word out.”

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September 24, 2014   No Comments

A Woman Walking in A Man’s Shoes

Kathleen Chalfant and Paul Niebanck in A Walk in the Woods

Kathleen Chalfant and Paul Niebanck in A Walk in the Woods

Kathleen Chalfant puts a feminine stamp on a traditionally male role in A Walk in the Woods

Welcome to Building Character, our ongoing look at performers and how they create their roles

A famous old adage says if women ruled the world, there would be no war. So it stands to reason that one of the two envoys attempting to negotiate an arms treaty in A Walk in the Woods is female—only that’s not the way Lee Blessing’s play was originally written. Loosely inspired by a real-life meeting between the U.S.’s Paul H. Nitze and the then U.S.S.R.’s Yuli A. Kvitsinsky during the 1982 Geneva peace talks, the 1988 Tony- and Pulitzer-nominated drama initially starred two men. But over the past quarter century, as more women have become high-profile players in international politics, some theatre companies have opted to change up the characters’ genders. And that’s exactly what Keen Company has done by casting Kathleen Chalfant as seasoned Russian diplomat Andrey (rechristened Irina) Botvinnik in A Walk in the Woods at the Clurman Theatre.

This isn’t the first time the Obie Award-winning actress has played a part that was meant for a man. Her diverse and illustrious career is filled with performances that blur gender boundaries. “I feel like I do this all the time,” she says with a small chuckle. “I have played a number of characters who are actually male, like in Angels in America, [affecting a flawless Russian accent] Aleksii Antedilluvianovich Prelapsarianov, the world’s oldest living Bolshevik, which was also my first Russian role. In Sarah Ruhl’s Passion Play, I played Queen Elizabeth, Hitler and Ronald Reagan—that part can be portrayed by a man or a woman, but it’s mostly been done by men. And I also played Clov in Beckett’s Endgame. So I had no hesitations when Johnny [Keen Company artistic director Jonathan Silverstein, who also helms the production] asked me to play Botvinnik.”

Of course in this mounting, Botvinnik is no longer a male character, which meant some slight script adjustments were necessary—mostly pronoun switches. But Blessing, who was present during the rehearsal process, was happy to oblige. “I’ve formally been asked for my approval to change the gender of one or the other negotiator in A Walk in the Woods four times, that I recall,” he says. “In each case I gave it. I think the gender change can wake us up a bit more to a play that discusses issues that haven’t been on the front burner in quite this way for decades. It reminds us that more and more women are finding their way into our society’s biggest socio-political discussions.”

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September 18, 2014   2 Comments

How Do You Bring a Circus to the People?

Jennifer Miller of Circus Amok

Jennifer Miller of Circus Amok

Circus Amok’s latest show marks 25 years of public fun (with a message)

When my then-three-year-old first saw Jennifer Miller, she blurted out, “You’re a girl with a beard!” It’s an exclamation the Circus Amok founder has gotten used to hearing over the decades, whether she’s onstage or off. A performer, playwright, Pratt professor, and political activist, bearded lady Miller and her campy cohorts mix juggling, acrobatics, clowning, and other traditional circus skills with a sideshow of social justice in free, all-ages shows performed in city parks. Climate change is the theme of the troupe’s 25th anniversary production, At the Crossroads, which kicks off in the Bronx’s St. Mary’s Park this Saturday. In between hitting up the TDF Costume Collection bag sale for matching outfits and rehearsing Circus Amok’s latest street spectacle, Miller took time out to chat about the newfound popularity of circus in theatre, the evolution of gender politics, and the hoops she (sometimes literally) jumps through in order to create public art.

Raven Snook: So I hear you and your castmates recently went treasure hunting at the TDF Costume Collection bag sale.

Jennifer Miller: Yes! It was thrilling in every way—the excitement of going to the Kaufman Astoria Studios movie lot and waiting in line and overhearing everybody else talking about the theatre projects they’re working on. And then the hustle and bustle once you get in there. It’s so exciting to run around. Of course, we looked for everything sequined and colorful.

Raven: I’ve only been to one TDF bag sale years ago, and I remember there being both a sense of competition and community.

Jennifer: It’s competitive with that playful edge, which is kind of symbolic of theatre in general, right? Probably what we were looking for was a little different than what other performing companies were trying to find. We were going for flamboyant and shiny, and matching sets. The weird thing is, the sets often aren’t together on the racks. So if you come across something that looks like it might have a partner, you have to tear around the whole place to see if there are others. We got these great green elfin outfits that we’re going to put on the jugglers. We have five jugglers this year and for us, costuming a multi-person act is always challenge.

Raven: And that’s a good segue to talk about your new show. What inspired you to do it? Did you think to yourself, “Okay, it’s been two years since our last production so we’ve got to do a new one.” Or do you wait for inspiration to strike?

Jennifer: I wish I could wait for creative inspiration! But theatre productions are big administrative endeavors, so first, we have to raise the money.

Raven: It always starts with the money, huh?

Jennifer: Exactly. Circus Amok put on an annual production for many years. The decision to go every other year had to do with exhaustion and leaving time for all of us to work on other projects. Every time we do a show I say, “This is the last year!” But we keep coming back. So I can’t say that with sincerity anymore.

Raven: Circus Amok shows always have an overarching politically charged theme. How did you decide on climate change for this edition?

Jennifer: The hardest thing about doing theatre that’s rooted in contemporary issues is that they’re constantly changing. I always look for something that’s got energy, that’s bubbling, that people are working on or concerned about in our city. This was an interesting year because De Blasio is such a change for us, after 12 years of Bloomberg we finally have a mayor whose policies we are in agreement with. We wondered what to do about that. Could we celebrate? But it turned out that there’s a huge UN Climate Summit and a People’s Climate March in September, right in the middle of our tour. So we decided to jump on climate change knowing there will be a lot of organizing on the street around it. So that’s our big theme, but other issues will find their way into the show, like what’s been happening in Ferguson, the killing of men of color like Michael Brown and Eric Garner, the uprisings around these injustices. And of course I also have to figure out a way to get my own personal state in it.

Raven: Which is?

Jennifer: Oh, you know, a character I can play who’s aging and raging! One of the things I bring up in the show is my grappling with being a political theatre maker and my struggles with the meaning and value of what we’re doing. Some of that dialogue does play out, hopefully in a funny, campy way.
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September 5, 2014   No Comments

She’s Standing Next to Herself

And I and Silence

Samantha Soule and Rachel Nicks

Samantha Soule is one of two people playing her character in  And I and Silence

Welcome to Building Character, our ongoing look at performers and how they create their roles

Crafting a character is always a collaborative process, with the performer, playwright, director, and designers all informing how a person moves from the page to the stage. But in Naomi Wallace’s intimate drama And I and Silence there’s an additional variable: a second actor.

Named for a line in Emily Dickinson’s poem “I Felt a Funeral in My Brain,” the ’50s-set play, now at Signature Theatre, traces the risky relationship between two imprisoned female teens and their valiant attempt to forge a life together after they’re released. Two sets of performers portray the African-American Jamie (Trae Harris and Rachel Nicks) and Caucasian Dee (Emily Skeggs and Samantha Soule) in 1950 and 1959 respectively, and though they’re far from dead ringers, their performances are similar enough to suggest you’re watching the same characters at different ages.

While it’s rare to have two actors tackle the same part in one show, Soule has actually done it before. “Karen Allen and I did a play called A Summer Day about two years ago at the Cherry Lane,” she remembers. “I played her younger self. It was about a woman who was stuck in the remembrance of one particular day and was more of a classic memory play. Naomi specifically didn’t want And I and Silence to be a memory play. Both realities are living simultaneously.” Though they start out as distinct, the two eras begin to bleed together à la Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, with all four actors inhabiting the stage simultaneously. So the pairs needed to be in sync in order to maintain the illusion of being one woman.

To that end, “Emily and I worked a bunch together in terms of crafting this person,” Soule says. “I think Caitlin [McLeod, the director] picked us because we inherently echoed each other. In rehearsal, we did a fair amount of mirroring exercises and improv. Caitlin would let us play for 20 minutes at a time and at the end she’d say, ‘This is what I saw you both instinctively choose to do.’ She had us hone in on places where we interpreted the character in the same way.”

But being identical was never the goal. “There’s definitely a distance between the younger and older selves,” Soule says. “As much as the core of who you are can remain the same, incarceration changes you. That gave us permission to be different. As Dee, Emily has a vivaciousness and openness and wit. I have more of what I call the ‘avocadoness:’ my exterior is a little tougher and the softness is held back.”

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August 19, 2014   No Comments

Beauty Queens (With a Sweet Little Secret)

Pageant - Davenport Theatre

The cast of Pageant

Why the men in Pageant are sincerely playing women

Though the Off-Broadway musical comedy Pageant could be described as a beauty contest with drag queens, you should banish all images of RuPaul’s Drag Race from your mind. While it’s true that the show’s six sparkly contestants, all vying for the coveted title of Miss Glamouresse, are played by men in women’s clothing, they’re not outrageous, in-your-face characters. Instead, they’re serving female realness.

According to director Matt Lenz, that was by design. “We had guys come into the audition, show us a male head shot and then a photo of their drag persona, Femme de la Fierce, or whatever it was, and that was decidedly not what we were going for in terms of tone,” he says. “I was looking for really inspired comic actors who could get beyond the dress and actually play the stakes. Their enthusiasm is what makes it work. To the characters, this contest is as serious as a heart attack.”

Lenz had been a fan of Pageant, written by Bill Russell and Frank Kelly, with music by Albert Evans, since catching it during its original Off-Broadway run in 1991. “I went because my good buddy David Drake was in it,” he remembers. “Then for the next 20 years, whenever I saw a funny show I’d think, ‘I haven’t laughed that hard since I saw Pageant!’” So Lenz jumped at the chance to direct the first NYC revival.

The production started out as a benefit for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS at the Red Lacquer Club, housed in the same space as the (recently closed) drag restaurant Lucky Cheng’s, and right next door to the Neil Simon Theater, where Lenz had worked as an associate director on Hairspray starring Harvey Fierstein in drag. So clearly there was some serious cross-dressing mojo happening on the block. “We announced four Monday nights in February and sold out almost right away,” he says.
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August 11, 2014   No Comments