Backstage: ‘Hairspray’ understudy, ‘Santaland Diaries,’ running Theater J

December 13, 2011

When Kathy Fuller auditioned for a part in Signature Theatre’s “Hairspray,” opening Wednesday, she read for the role of the Female Authority Figure, which encompasses three parts: “an uptight screaming mom type, the creepy, butch-y gym teacher, and the prison matron.” She laughed at the list. “Very much typecasting for me.”

Fuller is nearly 6 feet tall, with a deep voice and self-described “masculine features.” “I do get called for that part a lot,” she said. “The big broad. Or witches.”

A week later, she got a phone call: Would she like to understudy for Edna?

The part of Edna Turnblad, as written in John Waters’s 1988 film for the drag queen Divine, is intended for a man. The role has been famously embodied by Harvey Fierstein on Broadway and, in the 2007 remake of the remake, John Travolta.

Director Eric Schaeffer knew that the Edna he’d cast, Robert Aubry Davis, would have to miss five scheduled performances. Though tradition dictates that Edna be played by a man, Schaeffer said, “What we really tried to stay true to was the storytelling. If anything, sometimes when they cast males in this role, it does become stunt casting. We really wanted it to be about the relationship between Edna and Tracy.”

“It’s such a maternal part,” said Fuller. “It’s written so warmly and lovingly . . . There’s a line in the show, ‘I’m a simple housewife of indeterminate girth.’ I totally get that!”

What the show loses is the insta-hilarity of a man dressed up as a woman, a sort of go-to gimmick that can work even when nothing else is funny. “I don’t get the drag joke,” she said. “And it’s been a concern of mine that the audience is going to be disappointed. They’ve paid a lot of money for their tickets to come see a celebrity in drag . . . and instead they get a female understudy.

“But even though the part was written for a man,” she went on. “The part is a character, and it’s not written as a joke . . . I think the most successful Ednas are going to give the part a very genuine female perspective. It’s not just a guy in lipstick and falsies.”

Fuller has completed her four scheduled performances (one of the five was cancelled) but hopes she’ll have an opportunity to get back in the show, perhaps if the run is extended.

Through Jan. 29 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. www.signature-theatre.­org. 703-820-9771.

Let’s go to the mall

“The Santaland Diaries” is based on the book of the same name by David Sedaris, who chronicled his experience of working as an elf in Macy’s Santaland. It offers much of Sedaris’s trademark dark humor, peppered with jokes about black Santas and Sedaris’s attraction to a male elf. It was adapted for the stage as a one-man show by Joe Mantello and stars Joe Brack.

So, Joe, what’s it like being a soldier in the War on Christmas?

“People ask me all the time: ‘Do you hate Christmas? Is that why you do this?’ ” Brack said. “It’s a holiday just like any other holiday. It’s something we can celebrate and enjoy or choose to ignore.”

City Artistic Partnerships Executive Director Matty Griffiths explained that Brack’s performance is “exploiting such a clear commercialization of Christmas that he’s really not lampooning the holiday. He’s more lampooning the commercialization.”

Brack said he taps into his own memories of annual treks to the mall to visit Santa, an activity that is, in a way, the perfect microcosm of Christmas, covering all the secular bases of the holiday season: a fun but exhausting endeavor involving quality time with the family, a desire for presents, and just a little bit of judgment (“Have you been naughty or nice?”).

“One of the joys of the piece is that it’s about nostalgia. It’s about remembering Santa when you’re a little kid and believing in fantastical things that you lose as an adult.”

The show, he said, pulls in everyone from “People in Christmas sweaters and Santa hats” to “people who come and say, ‘I hate Christmas.’ Which, if nothing else, means there’s something in it for everyone.” It resonates with a wide enough audience, Griffiths said, that they’ve already extended the run: though slated to end on Dec. 24, the show will continue through New Year’s Eve.

Through Dec. 31 at the Shop- Fort Fringe, 607 New York Ave. NW, www.cityartisticpartnerships.org. 202-213-2474.

Under new management

Rebecca Ende is Theater J’s new managing director, but she doesn’t really feel new at all. After spending three years as the theater’s director of marketing and communications, she became president of the board of Forum Theater, a position she held for two years. Her hiring is more of a homecoming.

“This feels like my artistic home in a lot of ways,” said Ende. “I’ve stayed really connected to the company, even while I wasn’t working here . . . I’ve seen every show they’ve done.”

In January, Ende will oversee the launch of the Locally Grown Festival. Anchored by “The Religion Thing,” written by Renee Calarco, the festival will feature work by local playwrights.

“We’re really talking a lot about grounding our play development in the local writers of the region,” Ende said. “There’s 200-something local playwrights working actively, and that work is rarely seen on the stages of the D.C. theater scene.”

She anticipates that issues that have troubled Theater J in the past — notably, as she described, “Theater J’s ongoing challenges [with] wanting to explore the spectrum of Middle East drama and perspective coming out of that region” — will continue to be tricky territory to navigate. “[It’s] obviously a politically delicate situation,” she said.

As The Post’s Peter Marks wrote in August, an organization called Citizens Opposed to Propaganda Masquerading as Art asked that the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington consider cutting funding for Theater J, asserting that the theater’s production of “Return to Haifa” “demonize[d] Israel and the Jewish people” by, as Marks wrote, “dramatiz[ing] the exile stories of Jews and Palestinians as somehow being intertwined.” Tensions ran high, though the previous season was the most highly attended at Theater J to date.

Ende acknowledged, “People tend to fall to extremes on these issues . . . and people can perceive, ‘If you’re not presenting my side, you don’t support what I believe in.’ ”

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