Erin Weaver with her Greek Muses (from left to right) Nickolas Vaughan,… (Scott Suchman/ )
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.”