Sunday, January 28, 2018

Iron Crow Reaches High in ‘Cloud 9’

Cast of 'Cloud 9'  Photo: Rob Clatterbuck
When Iron Crow Theatre’s  Artistic Director and CEO Sean Elias chose to dub the 17-18 Season as the “Season of Identity,” he must have had Caryl Churchill’s Cloud 9 in mind first and foremost. This thought-provoking, satirical and unorthodox play, written in 1979, explores the fluidity of sexual identity and gender identity, as well as racial identity and national identity with many of the familiar stereotypes entwined.  It is interesting that these themes emerged as far back as 1979 at a time when many people viewed gender as binary and not as fluid as we note today.

The play fits in very much with Iron Crow’s brand as being Baltimore’s queer theatre company. Under the methodical direction of Dr. Natka Bianchini, Iron Crow’s seven-person, talented ensemble cast does a marvelous job of conveying these identities with passion and skill.

The first act takes place in an unspecified country in Africa (aren’t you glad Donald Trump is not writing this review?) under British colonial rule in the Victorian era.  It centers on a family who has desires for others. Here sexual oppression and repression are front and center with colonial oppression against the rebellious indigenous people as a backdrop.  The stringent rules on sexuality and gender roles are crafted and enforced by males.

Roughly 100 years later, the second act takes place in 1979 London whereby there is more sexual liberation and women and gays feel more empowered.  Though the time frame is 100 years later, those characters from the first act that appear in the second act only advance 25 years.

If you are not familiar with Churchill’s work, you might be taken aback to see an unusual but not totally unique cast construct whereby some of the male characters are performed by females and vice versa and a black character portrayed by a white person.  It is how Churchill meant it to be—to keep the audience off balance to challenge pre-conceived ideas about sexuality, gender and race.

This is established at the outset but as the play progresses, we get more used to it and, therefore, more comfortable with the presentation. With no one story line, the play revolves around the multiple interactions among the characters. To summarize as succinctly as possible:

Kathryne Daniels,  Kristina Szilagyi and Tavish Forsyth
Photo: Rob Clatterbuck
In Act I, Clive, played commandingly by Matthew Lindsay Payne, is a British colonial official who is duty bound to his country and to the queen.  He believes that sex roles are clearly defined, and when his young son Edward (energetically played by Barbara Madison Hauck) clings to a doll among his feminine characteristics and who has secretly harbored his attraction to other males, Clyde is irked and demands that Edward be as masculine as himself. 

Edward alternately loves, fears and hates his father and does not want to grow up to be like him. His sister, Victoria, is represented by a dummy in the first act.

Betty, Clive’s wife, played by Tavish Forsyth with a great deal of nuance and sensitivity, is subservient to Clyde and depends on him to make the decisions.  However, when an explorer named Harry Bagley (ably played by Jonas David Grey) visits the house, Betty imagines a relationship with him, conflicted by her yearning for romance outside of the marriage and her duty to her husband.

Though on the outside Harry presents himself as a courageous British explorer, on the inside he possesses a deviant sexual appetite including having sex with Edward and the butler Joshua (played mischievously by Nick Fruit).  Harry actually misinterprets Clive’s signals and comes on to him to Clive’s revulsion. 

Incensed, Clive forces Harry to marry Edward’s governess, Ellen (Kathryne Daniels) who happens to be a lesbian who fancied Betty.  Clive had earlier made a move on a visitor, Mrs. Saunders (also played by Ms. Daniels), but did not allow her to fully share in the pleasure.  Such joy!  Ms. Daniels performs in both roles splendidly.

Maud, Betty’s mother (well played by Kristina Szilagyi), is a traditionalist who insists that women must serve their husbands and take care of their homes.

The aforementioned Joshua is a dutiful man-servant, but the male-domination of the era seeps into his own behavior as he at times rude to Betty and laughs off a command by Edward. With Clive, it’s a whole different matter. 

In Act II, earlier characters reappear 25 years later and some new ones are introduced. All are portrayed by different actors from the first act, again keeping the audience off balance.  There is still British colonial oppression in play as British forces are present in Northern Ireland.

Edward, now played by Tavish Forsyth, is more accepting of being gay but his on again, off again, on again relationship with promiscuous Gerry (Nick Fruit) is affected by the conflict between steady companionship (Edward) and sexual adventure (Gerry). 

Nick Fruit and Tavish Forsyth  Photo: Rob Clatterbuck
Victoria (Kristina Szilagyi), no longer an inanimate dummy, is a mother of a young son and not that good a one at that.  She is married to Martin (Jonas David Gray) but that marriage is on the rocks. 

Victoria meets Lin and enters into a lesbian relationship providing some liberation.  Lin is played powerfully by Kathryne Daniels, fresh off her dual roles from the first act. She, too, has a child—a tantrum-prone 5 year-old named Cathy (Matthew Lindsay Payne) with a penchant for using foul language in poems.

At one point, Edward wishes he was a woman. He’s fed up with men and considers himself a lesbian, eliciting a smattering of applause from the audience. Edward, believing he is bisexual, moves in with his sister Victoria and Lin.  Betty (Barbara Madison Hauck) had split from Clive and is searching for independence.  She grows to accept Edward’s sexuality.

Iron Crow’s production of Cloud 9 is well-directed and performance-driven.  As stated earlier, all the actors shine in executing their complex and challenging roles.  Heather C. Jackson’s costume design, especially the period attire in the first act, and Alec Lawson’s lighting design enhance the presentation.

Clearly, the second act depicts more sexual and gender freedoms than the rigid mores of the 19th century where the taboos and sex roles are more defined. The fluidity and blurring of the lines continue today, and some day we will look back at 1980 the way Caryl Churchill envisioned 1880.
You will undoubtedly find this presentation very entertaining and will challenge any preconceptions you may have about gender and sexuality.

Running time. Two hours and 20 minutes with an intermission.

Advisory: Cloud 9 contains sexual situations and some profanity and is not suitable for children under 16.

Cloud 9 plays through February 4 at the Theatre Project, 45 W. Preston St., Baltimore, MD 21201.  Tickets and information are available online.


Friday, January 26, 2018

‘Young Frankenstein’ Brings Monster Laughs to Toby’s

Jeri Tidwell Photography
Just at a time we all could use a good laugh or a hundred, Toby’s the Dinner Theatre of Columbia comes through with an enormously funny and entertaining Young Frankenstein: The Mel Brooks Musical.  The book by Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan and music and lyrics by Brooks is based on the 1974 film Young Frankenstein that was written by Brooks and Gene Wilder. 

So, it’s fair to say, this is a Mel Brooks spectacle, and the production of Young Frankenstein at Toby’s under the stellar direction and choreography of Helen Hayes Award winner Mark Minnick would make the 91 year-old Brooks proud.  #hocoarts

Scenic and Lighting Designer David A. Hopkins brought his “A Game” to this production.  There is an imaginative display of lighting mixtures and special effects as well as a wide array of set pieces and props from a hospital gurney and lab equipment to a gallows that allow the production in Toby’s in-the-round venue to play big. 

Add that to excellent sound design and effects by Corey Brown, magnificent costumes designed by William Ivey Long (and there are lots and lots of costumes) and coordinated by Tommy Malek, wonderful make-up artistry and wigs, proficient musical direction by Ross Scott Rawlings who leads the solid seven-piece orchestra, precise staging with a torrid pace to the show, and a company of talented and energetic performers with many playing multiple roles, a near-perfect production has been created—and not from the dead either.

Mr. Minnick’s spot-on choreography is inventive and extensive.  The performers, either in small groups or larger ensemble numbers, adapt beautifully to the confines of the stage and excel in such numbers as “The Happiest Town,” “The Brain,” “Together Again,” “Join the Family Business,” “Transylvania Mania,” and the sparkling tap dance number, Irving Berlin’s “Puttin’ on the Ritz.”

Villagers in Transylvania celebrate the death of Victor Frankenstein, the original creator of the famous monster made from the body parts of the dead.  When it was revealed that the deceased has a grandson to keep the lineage going, the villagers panic at the prospect of yet another monster creator in that family but eventually calm down when they find out he lives in New York.  Why anyone from New York would come to Transylvania, they ask.  Whew!

But there wouldn’t be a movie or a musical if he didn’t make the journey.  In fact, young Frederick Frankenstein (who he insists is pronounced “Fronkensteen”) needs to be in Transylvania to deal with his grandfather’s castle, which he had inherited.  What could possible go wrong?  Plenty as it turns out with all the zaniness from the movie intact.

Jeffrey Shankle and David James have been long-time wonderful performers at Toby’s. But to see them play off each other in this utterly wacky madcap of a musical conjures up visions of other notable comedic Broadway pairings, such as those in Brooks’ The Producers (Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom) and even further back with Mame (Mame and Vera) and My Fair Lady (Henry Higgins and Col. Pickering) to name a few.

The chemistry and campiness between the two fit naturally and comfortably; it is an absolute treat to watch and listen to them.  Sure there is the temptation to go over the top in these hammy roles.  Thankfully, the skilled actors did.

In a tour de force, Mr. Shankle romps through the movie’s Gene Wilder portrayal of Frederick Frankenstein brilliantly and with flair.  Comedic timing, strong vocals and dancing are required and Mr. Shankle delivers.  His solo “Frederick’s Soliloquy” is touching and outstandingly performed.

However, his duet with David James, playing the flamboyantly gimpy Igor (pronounced Eye-gor), in the song “Together Again” is one of the show’s highlights.  

Tess Rohan does a wonderful job as Frau Blücher, who was more than just a housekeeper to the late Victor Frankenstein.  With a thick Transylvania accent Ms. Rohan relishes her comedic role and shines in the song “He Vas My Boyfriend.”  The mere mention of Frau Blücher—even whispers—provokes two equines (played by Gregory Banks and Brook Urquhart) to neigh.  That pair is hilarious.

Alicia Osborn plays Elizabeth who is engaged to Frederick but apparently without much physical contact.  Elizabeth surprises everyone when she shows up at the village and catches Frederick on a hospital gurney under the sheets with the sexy woman who seduced him, Inga (played very well by Louisa Tringali).   Ms. Osborn’s song “Please Don’t Touch Me” is comical and her solo ballad “Deep Love” is performed beautifully.

Portraying the recently deceased Victor Frankenstein in a hilarious dream sequence, Justin Calhoun, who plays other parts throughout the show, demonstrates his strong vocals in “Join the Family Business.”

Then there is “The Monster” (played by Christopher Kabara) created by Frederick after he was convinced to carry out his grandfather’s work. Growling, menacing and large, the Monster terrifies the villagers then receives a transfer of intelligence and evolves into an articulate and ultimate lover of Elizabeth and then a medical doctor with surprising results.  His voice is in fine form with a reprise of “Deep Love” after he proposes to Elizabeth.

In a scene straight out of The Bride of Frankenstein, The Monster, prior to his transfo
Jeri Tidwell Photography
rmation, enters a cabin and encounters a blind hermit.  Veteran actor Robert Biedermann 125 pulls off the blind man character flawlessly constituting one of the production’s funniest scenes.  Mr. Biedermann sings “Please Send Me Someone” and he got more than he bargained for.  So did The Monster.

David Bosley-Reynolds with is deep voice turns in a good performance as Inspector Kemp, the man with one wooden arm and one wooden leg—a good source of humor.

Other members of the talented cast include David Singleton, Gregory Banks, Ariel Messeca, Andrew Overton, Mary Kate Brouillet, Elizabeth Rayca, and Coby Kay Callahan.

Young Frankenstein under the direction of Mark Minnick at Toby’s is a comedy about a monster but it’s also a monster comedy. A magnificent cast and crew with all the wonderful technical elements supporting it make this a don’t miss show.  And, of course, there is that scrumptious Toby’s buffet.  

Advisory.  Young Frankenstein contains adult language and sexual situations and is not recommended for children under age 14.

Running time. Two hours and 30 minutes with an intermission.

Young Frankenstein runs through March 11, 2018 at Toby’s the Dinner Theatre of Columbia, 4900 Symphony Woods Rd., Columbia, MD 21044.  Tickets may be purchased by calling the box office at 410-730-8311 or visiting online

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Brother, Help Thyself Awards $75k in Grants



Brother, Help Thyself (BHT), one of the truly worthwhile LGBTQ organizations, handed out a total of $75,000 in grants to 34 LGBTQ and HIV/AIDS nonprofits in the Greater Baltimore-Washington, DC region. The ceremony was held on January 20 at the Baltimore Eagle.  

Mayor Catherine Pugh brought greetings on behalf of the residents of Baltimore, as did Jeffrey Hitt of the Maryland Department of Health.

“The story here isn’t that BHT gave out $75,000 today,” said Andrew McCarty, grant reception chairman, in a statement. “The story here is that in the era we find ourselves in today, where our freedoms and rights, and healthcare choices are being threatened, these 34 non-profits, with our help, are out there each and every day fighting to preserve and defend those rights and freedoms in support of our community. We are proud to play a small role in that work.”


2017 BHT Grant Awards
AIDS Action Baltimore - $4,140.00
Athletes United for Social Justice - "The Grassroots Project" - $1,130.00
Black, Gifted & Whole Inc. - $5,830.00
Breaking Ground - $2,930.00
Capitol Hill Arts Workshop - $830.00
Casa Ruby Inc. - $4,390.00
D.C.’s Different Drummers - $1,130.00
DC Center for LGBT Community - $2,360.00
Dickey Memorial Presbyterian Church - $150.00
Gay Men's Chorus of Washington, DC - $560.00
FreeState Justice - $920.00
Gay & Lesbian Community Center of Baltimore - $770.00
Health Options & Positive Energy Foundation, Inc (HOPE DC) - $3,790.00
Heart to Hand, Inc - $3,410.00
HIPS - $3,580.00
HopeSprings, Inc. - $3,350.00
Latino GLBT History Project - $2,200.00
LULAC Council 11125 - $1,000.00
Mary's House for Older Adults, Inc. - $8,280.00
Metro DC PFLAG - $850.00
Mid-Atlantic Deaf & Interpreter Fund - $1,670.00
Mosiac Theater Company of DC - $350.00
New Ways Ministry, Inc. - $1,980.00
PFLAG Columbia-Howard County MD - $1,020.00
PFLAG Westminster MD - $1,020.00
Rainbow Families DC - $2,080.00
Rainbow History Project Foundation - $790.00
Rainbow Theater Project - $540.00
SMYAL - $1,690.00
St. Margaret's Church Vestry - "Charlie's Place" - $3,030.00
TransGender Education Association of Greater Washington - $1,460.00
UUC of Rockville "Rainbow Youth Alliance - $4,740.00
Wanda Alston Foundation - $2,470.00
Washington Renegades Rugby Football Club - $560.00

TOTAL
$75,000.00

BHT also presented four annual community service awards:

▲Anthony J. Bachrach Award for Outstanding Service (to an individual), to Baltimore’s own Rik Newton-Treadway for his longtime and terrific support of our community.

 ▲Billy Collison Award (to an underdog, and grantee), was presented to the Latino GLBT History Project who does so much, with so very little, to preserve the history of the LatinX LGBTQ community in Washington, DC.

 ▲George Dodson Business Award (to a business supportive of the community) was presented to the Baltimore Eagle (for a second time no less) for its outstanding support of our community.

 ▲Founders Award (to a non-profit, doesn’t have to be a grantee) was presented to the Wanda Alston Foundation for its record of vital service to the homeless LGBTQ youth population in Washington, DC.

“Our community has some great unsung legends who for years have gone about their days working for the betterment of LGBTQ people,” said McCarty. “None of us are in this for self-aggrandizement, and we believe it is vital to recognize folks and groups we collectively feel are worthy of recognition.”

Since its incorporation in 1978, BHT has now given out $3,169,699.45.  For more information about BHT call 202-347-2246  or email  info@brotherhelpthyself.org.


Saturday, January 13, 2018

Republicans Must Break From the Shithole President

The GOP is heading off the cliff with Trump.


MILKOS/ABADONIAN/TIM BRADLEY/
EDUARADO MUNOZ ALVAREZ/GETTY
Election Day 2018 is less than 10 months away.  On a national level, midterms are usually perilous for the party in power as voters have little other choice but to vent their frustration against those holding offices. This cycle is shaping up to be a doozey against the GOP fueled by the revulsion towards President Donald Trump who remains the most unpopular president in modern times.

Voter surveys have shown a marked preference for a generic Democratic candidate over a Republican in Congress.  GOP representatives are retiring at a record pace that now give hope to Democratic candidates to seize the opportunities presented and re-take the House.  While it is true Democrats need a strong message during this cycle to win over voters and as importantly, stoke the needed enthusiasm to get out the vote, disdain for Trump will be the party’s guiding star.

Trump has demonstrated an inordinate capacity for getting himself in trouble with his tweets and his verbal comments—the latter exemplified by his reported racially charged characterization of African nations and Haiti as “shithole countries” in reference to immigrants.  He needs this controversy like a hole in the head following the publication of mega-seller Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House by Michael Wolff where his fitness for office, his mental capacity and stability are allegedly questioned by those who are around him. #hocopolitics

From Charlottesville to Ghana, Trump has displayed his inner bigoted self, substantiated by a history of racism from his real estate development beginnings and birtherism to his anti-Muslim, anti-Mexican rhetoric.  Now the “shithole” mess that validates the charges of racism.

Throughout these episodes, Republican lawmakers have been tepid concerning Trump’s actions and overt racist words, the hovering Russia investigation, and the cavalier saber-rattling handling of the stalemate with North Korea.  While privately they raise their eyebrows and shake their heads with respect to Trump (even calling him a moron or worse), publicly they are latching on to him without any fissures of this alliance to this point.

Trump with his pardoned pal Sheriff Joe Arpaio
Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) who was once a strong critic of the president and gave hope to Americans that the preservation of democracy is far more important than party loyalty has exercised a rather suspicious whiplash reversal since a golf outing with Trump and now seems to be an ally. Even retiring Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) who had criticized Trump and questioned his stability appears happy now that the new tax law has been signed, which will benefit Corker (and Trump) mightily.

For GOP electeds who will be facing a likely prodigious blue wave, it’s not enough to “distance” themselves from Trump; they need to strongly condemn him when appropriate.  This applies to moderate Republican officials—local and national—who don’t agree with Trump on many if not most instances but somehow feel obliged to keep silent about him lest they lose Trump’s shrinking but noisy base.  This is a false calculation because those Trump supporters have nowhere to go but to back a Republican.  Voters in Alabama who supported Roy Moore preferred a sexual predator of underage girls to a Democrat.

Picture GOP elected officials in a line, locked in arms with Trump in the center, heading for a cliff.  If they don’t break from that linkage with Trump, Democrats will remind the voters that Republicans are the party of Trump, Moore and Sheriff Arpaio, and the Republicans could plunge into the abyss with him. 

Republican strategist Steve Schmidt has been hammering Trump for his debasement of the office of the presidency.  His tweet below sums up accurately the challenge facing Republicans.





Sunday, January 07, 2018

LGBTQ Orgs Must Cope with New Tax Law

Image from Watermark Online
From food banks to churches to cancer research to LGBTQ organizations, the recently passed tax bill that was signed into law by President Donald Trump poses new financial challenges to non-profits that depend heavily on individual contributions. 

By increasing the standard deduction from $6,350 to $12,000 for individuals and from $12,700 to $24,000 for couples, an estimated 33 million more people will choose the standard deduction over itemizing on their 2018 tax returns than they did in 2017.  For those who will not itemize, charitable contributions will no longer be written off.

Tim Delaney, CEO of the National Council of Nonprofits,  told NBC News   that several aspects of the plan are “disastrous” for the sector as a whole and cited estimates from the Tax Policy Center that the plan could result in $13 billion in lost revenue for nonprofits and more than 220,000 lost jobs.

Many LGBTQ groups are registered with the IRS as 501(c) (3) organizations, meaning that donations to these nonprofits are tax deductible and will continue to be so—except for those taxpayers opting for the standard deduction.  However, since the election of Trump, organizations have reported contributions from larger donors, which may mitigate potential losses.

A recent report by the LGBTQ think tank Movement Advancement Project found 39 of the leading LGBTQ organizations in the U.S. brought in $230 million dollars in revenue 2016, with more than 80 percent of the money going to 501(c)(3) organizations.

Individual contributions accounted for 35 percent of those organizations’ revenue, and the vast majority of individual donors (94 percent) were small donors who gave less than $1,000. These small donors are the ones who would most likely be disincentivized to donate by the doubling of the standard deduction, explains Delaney.

It is not only the mere election of Trump that has motivated donors but also his specific policies and actions, such as his attempt to ban transgender service members riled the LGBTQ community and allies. 

Matt Thorn, the executive director of the LGBTQ advocacy nonprofit OutServe-SLDN , told NBC News that tax incentives were the biggest drivers of donations but notes a shift.  “This year, in this climate, a lot of it has to do with the work we are doing. People are really generating their gifts based on the causes.”

To be sure, persuading donors to contribute based on the mission of the organization has always been the centerpiece of fundraising drives. The tax incentives added to the appeal. 

Now LGBTQ nonprofits (as well as nonprofits in general) must double-down their focus on mission-centric messaging to attract smaller donors.  Many LGBTQ organizations have seen a falloff in donations (and interest) once marriage equality was achieved, which created another challenge for these entities. 

There is so much more work remaining that is seemingly under the radar because these issues aren’t as glamorous as marriage equality.  Continued discrimination against LGBTQ people, homelessness among LGBTQ individuals, violence against members of the community particularly transgender individuals, bullying in schools, inequality in the juvenile justice and foster care systems, increase in hate crimes since the election of Trump, HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment—the list is long and daunting.

LGBTQ nonprofits provide vital services to their clients, especially marginalized populations and will require the funds to keep these programs running.  There will be more demand on these organizations because of a burgeoning LGBTQ youth population as well as a sharp increase in the number of LGBTQ elders—both groups depending on client-based services.  Communicating the organization’s mission and the rationale for the funds are essential to tackle the ongoing challenges.

Locally as well as nationally, LGBTQ nonprofits must strategize on how to mitigate the loss of individual contributions resulting from the new tax law.  Again, the mission must be the focus of any fundraising appeal.

Though it declined to specifically comment for this article, FreeState Justice announced in November the launch of the Maryland LGBTQ Legal Defense Fund to provide free legal services to those facing discrimination who could not otherwise afford representation.  

“The Maryland LGBTQ community continues to face troubling attacks and policies from the current federal administration,” FreeState Justice’s fundraising letter stated.

Tax Cuts and Jobs Act signed by President Trump
“We are not immune from the rescinding of guidelines protecting transgender students, condoning bigotry masked as religious belief, advocating in favor of discrimination in court, and targeting transgender service members.  Now is the time for our community to come together to confront vitriolic national rhetoric and defend equality in our state.  With the launch of this Fund, FreeState Justice is fighting back.”

Max Crownover, the new chapter president of PFLAG-Howard County,  agrees that the emphasis must be on the mission. 

“The message and the motivation has to be on the intangibles rather than the individual's tax benefit,” Crownover says.  “In the current sociopolitical climate, I believe PFLAG can convince like-minded people that contributing makes a difference—not just for the LGBTQ community, but also for our whole community and society. We are also working hard to make that difference very visible. With that in mind, we have kicked off a strategic planning initiative to identify how we can have a more significant impact in Columbia, Howard County, and beyond.”

Others see this tax law and other dangerous policies by the Trump administration potentially harmful to LGBTQ youth.

“We know that lower income households may lose the incentive to give if they can no longer write-off their donation,” says Jabari Lyles, executive director of GLSEN Maryland

“We do not expect the benefits of the tax breaks given to high income households and large corporations to ‘trickle down’ to us, as it has never trickled down to anyone. This could mean job losses or weakened programmatic impact.”

Lyles adds, “We are hopeful our supporters will continue to give due to the dire nature of our work and especially in response to the dangerous decisions this administration makes regarding LGBTQ youth.”