Now in its sixth year, The DC Center’s DC Queer Theatre Festival delivers on its promise to unleash and celebrate underrepresented voices and diversity. After evaluating over thirty submissions, seven plays were chosen for the 2018 festival. Family and relationships dominate the evening, spanning the emotion spectrum from hilarity to despair.
Festival organizer Matt Ripa did an excellent job ordering the shows, and as such the festival starts with a standout: Audrey Cefaly’s Consider the Ficus, directed by Carl Randolph. This play featured Frank Britton as Nate and Craig Houk as Garrison, who gave some of the strongest performances of the evening. On the day of the 2015 SCOTUS decision guaranteeing a nationwide right to same-sex marriage, Garrison, an environmental lobbyist, and his partner Nate, an editor, are working through a critical turning point of their own.
Cefaly did an exquisite job with the script, effortlessly flowing between the tender moments and conflict inherent in loving relationships faced with a seemingly insurmountable hurdle. Britton broke my heart as I watched him struggle with a personal loss in the face of a national gain for same-sex marriage. Houk’s Garrison is compelling as he struggles to find meaning in both his personal and professional life. Randolph’s direction created an engaging push-pull across the stage as the actors’ collided and drifted apart.
Next in the lineup is Xian Mao’s Fantasy Roadtrip, directed by Don Michael Mendoza, featuring Patty Pablo as Rain and Russwin Francisco as Uncle Bone. This is a thoughtful, quiet play featuring two family pariahs who reconnect on an interstate drive home from the institution where Bone has resided.
Mao packs a lot of topics, from sexuality to family and mental illness, into a short script, which could have easily veered into the melodramatic with the wrong director. But Mendoza’s direction keeps the dialogue and the action at a low, intimate level which allows the audience to think about these complex issues without getting beaten over the head with them. Francisco’s Bone was compelling in his troubled complexity.
Roadtrip is followed by the mythological mashup Son of Apollo by Brittany Alyse Willis, directed by Jon Jon Johnson. In this play, Phaethon (Aron Spellane) desperately wants to prove he is not only Apollo’s child, but Apollo’s son, as mother Clymene (Ezra Tozian) struggles to simultaneously support and protect her child.
Both Spellane and Tozian imbued their characters with unique identities while perfectly embodying a quintessential parent-child struggle. Spellane’s restlessness and blinding ambition are palpable while Tozian is nothing short of heroic in their ability to portray what unconditional love truly looks like: it stings, it burns, and at times, it can rip you apart. Johnson was smart to keep the blocking tight and intimate, aptly portraying the incendiary burn of Willis’ script.
The biggest production value of the night came with Protect & Preserve, written and directed by Xemiyulu Manibusan Tapepechul, who also plays Sea-Sia. For every show, costumes and props were done by actors and directors, and Tapepechul and actors proved that you can create a vibrant tableau in even the simplest black box space. After the murder of a Two-Spirit Trans Womxn, her lover, and fellow Two-Spirit, Apanpiltzin (Pablo Ventura) is unable to find healing.
This play is undoubtedly a brave tribute to missing and murdered Indigenous Womxn of the American continent. I do wish Tapepechul had allowed more of the symbology to stand on its own. The first half of the play was filled with strong symbology, which was effective and powerful, but that power was diminished when the themes were then blatantly spelled out for the audience at the end. Regardless, this play retained strength through the raw, vulnerable performances of Ventura, Alexa Rodriguez as The Black Snake, Ahanu as Ihzapow, and Tapepechul.
Next in the lineup was, for me, the standout of the festival: Most Important Meal of the Day by Alan Sharpe, directed by Jared Shamberger. Featuring a stellar script and quintessential performances by Zukeh Freeman’s performance as Son and Charles W. Harris, Jr as Father, in this gut-wrenching play, a son adopts the role of caretaker of his father, who is suffering from Alzheimer’s. Sharpe unforgivingly removes the Father’s filter, and the audience watches in horror as Harris spews pure hate at his own son.
Harris Jr’s transitions in and out of lucidity are seamless, and keep the audience at the very edge of their seats. Freeman’s navigation of this minefield is perfection, and the compassion he is able to portray while working through immense emotional pain is inspiring. Shamberger did an excellent job keeping the audience off-balance, and the physical switch between father and son didn’t go unnoticed. Bravo to all.
After a string of intense plays, Asabi “OSH” Oke’s Out With Culture, directed by Aiyi’nah “SimplyNay” Ford, provides some much-needed laughter while offering a thoughtful look at a family struggling with sexual identity. Parents Mummie (Sade Adeyo) and Baba (Aaron Pitsenberger) suspect that their daughter’s (Shalom Omo-Osagie) sleepovers at her female friend’s house are more than platonic. How they each respond will leave you touched and laughing.
The strength of this play was in the intimate moments between mother and daughter. Omo-Osagie was very convincing in her portrayal of a youth trying to identify who she is. Adeyo’s Mummie was loving and intimate with effective touches of humor. Adeyo and Pitsenberger do a good job playing off each other but Pitsenberger’s character would have been much more effective if he didn’t break character at his own jokes. Admittedly, he had some hilarious lines. Ford uses the space well and builds relationships with proximity and movement, complementing the script. The script had some heavy-handed moments but overall was a delight.
Finishing the night was Plus One by John Bavoso, directed by August Gorman, and featuring Gabriella Marie as Shari and Jamie Pasquinelli as Deanna. This was another top-tier play of the festival, though Bavoso’s script did have a few moments that were slightly patronizing to the audience, unnecessarily spelling themes out that the actors were conveying competently on their own. Regardless, this play was still a favorite because it took a compelling look at the “old guard” of the LGBT community’s pitfalls in adopting the language and perspective of its younger members.
While Marie was the standout as Shari, both actors kept the laughs coming as they navigated their relationship and different experiences with their families. Marie brought a steady demeanor which was well complemented by Pasquinelli’s raw language and raucous personality. Gorman kept the action moving, using the entire space effectively and creating credible intimacy between the actors.
This was a thought-provoking, humorous, gut-wrenching evening. My partner and I talked for hours after we left about the topics explored. Co-founders Matt Ripa and Alan Balch, with the additional help of producer Kimberley Bush, should be proud of this festival and its body of work. Additional kudos for Ripa and Balch’s rapid set changes, which kept the festival moving at a nice clip.
If you weren’t fortunate enough to catch the DC Queer Theatre Festival this year, be sure to put it on your radar for next year.
Running Time: One hour and 20 minutes, with no intermission.