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At 28, Matthew Gardiner has rising role at Arlington’s Signature Theatre

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The yin and yang of young Matthew Gardiner:

●He’s precociously unrushed and composed, a slender dude in boots and jeans. Signature Theatre’s 28-year-old associate artistic director sits in a company conference room with the upright, unfidgety poise of the dancer he was trained to be but never became, coolly talking about his rapid rise with one of Washington’s top troupes.

Tranquil as Gardiner is, however, his mind revs ahead. To let you know he understands questions, he doesn’t merely say “Yeah.” It’s “Yeah-yeah-yeah” or “Yeah-yeah-yeah-yeah.” It’s as if he’s directing, and asking for a faster tempo.

●He likes tough new works. Next season Gardiner directs Christopher Shinn’s dark play “Dying City,” about the stateside aftermath of a U.S. soldier’s apparent death in Iraq. A few months ago he generated buzz with the controversial hot-ticket premiere “Really Really” at Signature. That unsettling drama charted the fallout from sexual violence during a campus kegger, with a privileged athlete facing a rape charge. Gardiner’s polished direction in the cozy 110-seat Ark space deftly delivered the moral uncertainty of a very heavy “he said/she said” plot.

“If somebody’s eyes moved a different way, you’d think they’re lying,” says 26-year-old “Really Really” playwright Paul Downs Colaizzo, “and if you think they’re lying, the whole play is shot. He [Gardiner] knows how delicate changes can make a big difference overall.”

Yet at heart Gardiner seems to be one of those rarefied musical theater beasts weaned on Judy Garland and Bob Fosse. He doesn’t just direct; he choreographs, too. He’ll tackle the iconic Motown musical “Dreamgirls” immediately after the Shinn drama next fall.

And Gardiner’s current follow-up to the grim “Really Really” is the cotton-candy “Xanadu,” the theatrical version of the Olivia Newton-John-on-roller-skates musical with Electric Light Orchestra songs. Camp city.

“Totally makes no sense,” Gardiner acknowledges of this back-to-back effort, smiling broadly.

Playwright Douglas Carter Beane (“The Little Dog Laughed”) adapted the flop 1980 movie into a recent Broadway hit, and in Signature’s bigger Max space, Gardiner’s production beams with silliness. Electric palm trees adorn the stage. Dancers cavort and skate in spoofy patterns. The audience gets Glow-Stick bracelets at the door, giving the applause a kinetic kick in the dark.

“A Venice Beach disco ball extravaganza feel,” Gardiner explains.

So how does Gardiner, as an artist, identify himself? Is he fundamentally a director or a choreographer? Is his real affinity for serious stuff like Yasmina Reza’s “Art” and the intricate Michael John LaChiusa musical “See What I Wanna See”? Or with kitsch like “[title of show]” and “Reefer Madness,” which he co-directed and choreographed for Studio Theatre’s 2ndStage?

“I think I know what I do well,” Gardiner says in an evasive answer that seems to hint toward musicals. “But I don’t necessarily like to identify myself that way. I don’t like to be in a box.”

“He was so passionate about ‘Really Really’ because he knew who those characters were,” says Signature artistic director Eric Schaeffer, who gave Gardiner a job before he was even out of college. “ ‘Xanadu,’ he just loved the whole sense of fun, the joy of musical theater. He’s still discovering who he is as an artist.”

The discovery process has been going on since Gardiner was a kid in College Park. He trained for ballet and got his feet wet professionally very early with children’s roles in Washington Ballet’s “Nutcracker” and Ford’s Theatre’s “A Christmas Carol” (as Tiny Tim).

His twin, James, a Washington actor, also took an early shine to showbiz. James was 24 when “Glory Days,” the musical he wrote with composer Nick Blaemire, catapulted from Signature to Broadway (where it closed after opening night), and he is currently one of the cutups and the dance captain in Folger Theatre’s “Taming of the Shrew.”

“Dying City” deals with twins, which is a plus for Matthew, though James won’t be in it. (Fun fact: James and his wife, Erin Driscoll, just bought a house with Matthew; all three will live there for a while — young artists pooling resources. How do the twins handle the personal-professional relations? “Delicately,” Matthew says.)

Longtime Signature choreographer Karma Camp, like Schaeffer, has known both Gardiner lads since they signed up for an intensive summer camp as high school students. “Their entire childhood was watching shows in the basement,” Camp says.

The fork in the road that kept James onstage and channeled Matthew behind the scenes came when Matt directed James as the Emcee in a high school production of “Cabaret.” “All anybody could talk about when they saw the production was my brother,” Matthew says. “Which was annoying.”

But the die was essentially cast, with directing and choreography as his focus at Carnegie Mellon University, reinforced by stints as Schaeffer’s or Camp’s assistant during summer and winter breaks.

As Gardiner was finishing his senior year, Signature moved into its new complex in Shirlington. Schaeffer hired Gardiner as the company’s resident assistant director, which put the fresh graduate at the right hand of such Broadway vets as Frank Galati, Christopher D’Amboise and John Rando.

Lately Schaeffer has grown busy with “Million Dollar Quartet” (still running in New York) and “Follies,” the Kennedy Center-produced revival up for eight Tony Awards and now playing in Los Angeles. Meanwhile, Gardiner has been bumped up the company ladder.

“He understands my sensibility and what’s important to me,” says Schaeffer. “We trust each other.”

That means beginning to help steer Signature through admittedly perilous times. Signature’s economics are as daring as any in Washington theater; its calling card is big, fully produced musicals in intimate spaces. (The Max has a capacity of 276.) The company, winner of the 2009 Regional Theatre Tony Award, is still paying down expansion debt and figuring out how to balance its commitment to new works — Gardiner’s chief interest — with programming that keeps the turnstiles moving. Gardiner is learning how this works; Schaeffer says this year he brought Gardiner in on all the budget meetings.

Meantime, “Xanadu” is Gardiner’s biggest show yet, and the leading lady, Erin Weaver, spends most of the evening on wheels. Gardiner reckons the skating has taken up 80 percent of rehearsal time.

“How do you stop on a dime and land that punch line, and figure out what speed you can be going to get where you need to be?” he explains. “Directing a comedy on skates is horrible.”

And choreographing? Gardiner’s foundation is ballet, but he says the script calls for the show’s Greek Muses to move in a way suggesting Isadora Duncan and the Solid Gold Dancers.

“Luckily for you all,” Gardiner says he told the cast, “I dance like Isadora Duncan and the Solid Gold Dancers on a daily basis.”

The former associate is quick to credit his own associates for helping shape the “Xanadu” styles: Camp’s 23-year-old daughter, Brianne (associate choreographer), and skate supervisor Gregory Vander Ploeg.

An eye for talent is part of what Camp liked about Gardiner’s “Really Really,” especially casting Jake Odmark as the male lead, despite a résuméheavy with musicals. “I told Matt, that’s the find of the century,” Camp says. “A lot of directors would question that.”

“I don’t want people to look at me and go, ‘All he can do is musical theater,’” Gardiner says. “And I don’t view actors that way.”

There’s no telling exactly which way Gardiner will break in the coming years. He’d rather direct the hard-to-label variety of projects he’s getting at Signature than assist in New York. And not everyone gets to learn how to run a substantial theater company before turning 30.

“In my head there are different ways it could go,” Gardiner says, poker-faced. “And I would be happy.”

Xanadu

Book by Douglas Carter Beane, music and lyrics by Jeff Lynne and John Farrar, based on the Universal Pictures film screenplay by Richard Danus and Marc Rubel. Directed and choreographed by Matthew Gardiner. Through July 1 at Signature Theatre. Call 703-820-9771 or visit www.signature-theatre.org.

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