I promised here I would finish my post on the best (mostly Philly) theater we saw in `10, and I'm a man of my word. This covers mainly queer-themed theater; I didn't plan to segregate, it just turned out that way--making this a kind of civil-union-y, seperate-but-nearly-equal post.
Philly's Mauckingbird Theater Company does new plays with queer themes, and queers--or excavates the essential queerness of--classic plays. Midsummer Night's Dream is a play I ordinarily avoid: Lysander, Helena, Hermia, and Demetrius are the meanest, dullest, and whiniest of Shakespeare's lovers. But Mauckingbird's production overcame this to a large extent in making the loving pairs same-sex--I was able to sympathize more with them when the marriages they were being forced into contradicted their fundamental natures. That Mauckingbird cast actual (Temple) college students as the lovers helped also, as they looked so young their callowness was more understandable. I wished I could have watched this production with a copy of the text before me, as there were many lines which, in a queer context, became funnier, or more poignant, or offered commentary on our current civil rights struggle that seemed not forced, but somehow natural and inevitable. This play was a good choice, but all of Shakespeare is game for queering; his passages of same-sex desire are scattered on the surface of the plays like garnets in our city parks, you don't have to excavate for them. (Think of the awkward tenderness of Hamlet's "too much of this" scene with Horatio, or Iago's unconsciously revealing fiction about Cassio's sleep-talking:
And then, sir, would he gripe and wring my hand,
Cry, “O sweet creature!” and then kiss me hard, As if he pluck'd up kisses by the roots,
That grew upon my lips; then laid his legOver my thigh, and sigh'd and kiss'd; and thenCried, “Cursed fate that gave thee to the Moor!”
But, too much of this.)
Though Shakespeare queers easily, I also approve of queering plays that seem heterosexual to the core as a way of addressing our scarcity as characters in literary history. You can't change the past, but it's noble to try.
The mechanicals in Mauckingbird's Dream stole the show, as they often do. It's unfair to the other characters that Shakespeare gives the mechanicals all the funniest lines, and somehow makes their desire to put on a good show for the Duke's wedding seem the most truly heartfelt goal of any character in the play. Danielle Pinnock as Nick Bottom was unbelievably funny, and I was impressed that, as insane, eccentric, and outsized as her performance was, it was never hammy. We adored her, and the other mechanicals were the most innocent, goofy, and appealingly queer ensemble I could imagine in these roles.
That was Mauckingbird's first Shakespeare; the company also went in a new direction with two one-actor shows about great queer writers: we missed the one about Capote but saw The Threshing Floor, about James Baldwin. I tend to doubt one-person shows, I wonder if they are theater and suspect them of being an awkward hybrid of a play and an informative lecture. When I find myself worrying about the physical and emotional strains this way of working must place on the lone actor it's a sure sign that the play itself has not engaged me. However, James Ijames's script and performance in Threshing Floor gave a satisfyingly rounded picture of Baldwin's life, and his evocation of other characters was terrific--giving the illusion of a full cast of personalities around Baldwin. The device of beginning the play as the journey of a graduate student going to see Baldwin was a great way to defuse the weirdness of being asked to believe that I am seeing Emily Dickinson! or PT Barnum! or Mark Twain! when the curtain goes up. If I've ever seen a one-person show that felt like a play and did ample justice to its subject, this was it--I hope there are further productions of The Threshing Floor.
The last great queer show we saw was Sanctuary, by Brian Sanders' JUNK. We don't normally see dance, but had heard great things about this company. Actually, when people talk about Brian Sanders' JUNK they get a look in their eyes like they're about to have a seizure, or a UFO has just landed behind where you're standing. So we figured we should go.
Sure enough, we were glad we went. Our favorite part was a male pas de deux choreographed to Duran Duran's The Chauffeur, performed in the two-dimensional space limned by a long, narrow trough of water. The two men alternately lifted, and were lifted by the other, their movements so fluid I could never tell when one transitioned from carrying to being carried. For me the dance embodied the way that same-sex relationships can be profoundly equal--you immediately escape any expectation of hierarchical roles, do not feel the need to ironically subvert paradigms of hierarchical roles, and are cut off from the burden of the history of hierarchical roles. Virginia Woolf's phrase for female relationships, the love of friends, and Walt Whitman's phrase for male relationships, the love of comrades, express the innately democratic nature of same-sex relationships--an idea developed at length in Richard D. Mohr's Gay Ideas (though his focus is almost exclusively on male pairs). Have I ever seen a performance as authentically, essentially queer, as Sanctuary? Either I'm having a seizure or there's a UFO hovering behind you.
I guess Ma Rainey's Black Bottom at Philadelphia Theatre Company counts as queer, since Ma has a girlfriend. We thought the whole cast was perfect--even when August Wilson gave them reams of exposition, they made it work. I have a strong bias for smaller theater companies who have no fixed home, finding that the bigger the theater, the worse the show--but Ma Rainey's at PTC disproved my bias.
One last show, and not an (especially) queer one: We ended the year, literally, by seeing the Berserker Residents' Very Merry Xmas Carol Holiday Adventure Show at Theater Horizon on New Year's Eve. The show was very funny, and we got to throw snowballs at the villain, and I won a T-shirt! so it was worth the trip to Norristown--even though the train on the way back was packed with antiseptic yuppie clones who had actually dressed up for New Year's Eve. (We recovered by going to our favorite pub and seeing in 2011 with our friend the tango instructor). I'm going to toss out the prediction that Very Merry Xmas Carol Holiday Adventure Show will become a classic. We love the Berserker Residents! (Annihilation Point is the funniest show I've ever seen).
In the corners of the internet I frequent I overhear complaints about the lack of queer characters in movies, the lack of out-actors portraying LGBT characters in movies, and the frequently stereotyped or tragic roles when we are represented in movies. This is terrible, and it should change. It's as natural to complain about the state of cinema as it is heroic to advocate and work for change. But it's also eminently sensible and satisfying to support the inspired work of your local theater companies.
I'll go with thee to the lane's end... I am a kind of burr, I shall stick. Shakespeare, Measure for Measure
I write not to teach but to learn. Rebecca West
- "Always Forever Now," Ideomancer volume 13, issue 2
- "Black Sun," Black Static # 32
- "Bread or Cake" and "Pride/Shame,"2nd Annual Philadelphia One-Minute Play Festival
- "Copper Heart," Polluto Magazine issue 5, A Steampunk Orange
- "The Accomplished Birder's Guide to Overcoming Rejection," Last Drink Bird Head, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer
- "Another Night With the Henriksens," Player's Theater Halloween One-Act Festival NYC 2008
- "Hating the Lovers," and "Pipe Down!" Geez Magazine: Thirty Sermons You Would Never Hear in Church
- "Beth/slash/Nathan," Paper Fruit Blogiversary Contest
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