Seemingly more so than usual, the plays at mainstream theatres tended toward representations of affluent white male protagonists with rather conventional romantic conflicts. Is this what marriage equality hath wrought? Come back to the 5 & dime, Tarell Alvin McCraney, Tarell Alvin McCraney.
But queer representations in all their cultural and aesthetic diversity were out there, and I encountered some excellent performances across the spectrum of theatrical production. The following blog entry is not a “best of” list. Rather, it’s a highly subjective and idiosyncratic look at some of the queer performances that I happened to see this year—performances that moved me, excited me, and challenged me.
Notable trends: autobiography, non-linear narratives, parent-child conflicts, deconstructions of old movies, and Blanche DuBois
January 8, 2015
DarkMatter @ LaMaMa Café
The poetic monologues (and occasional dialogues) of Alok Vaid-Menon and Jenani Balasubramanian, collectively known as DarkMatter, contain a thrilling combination of truth, beauty, sly wit, and righteous fury. This trans south Asian performance duo tackles intersecting forces of oppression, from racism encountered in the queer community to the wars caused by the forces of colonialism. Their work also presents a search for identity in a world in which all labels of identification are suspect. Since witnessing their performance at the LaMaMa Café, I’ve included their videos in my courses in queer theatre, and they never fail to provoke the students in all the right ways.
January 18, 2015
Night Light Bright Light @ Abrons Arts Center
Jack Ferver’s unique brand of performance includes dance, song, confessional monologues, surreal poetry, and video. Night Light Bright Light, performed with dancer Reid Bartelme, is filled with memorable sequences, but two in particular stand out for me. One: Ferver performs a condensed one-man version of A Streetcar Named Desire that is both hysterically funny and more truthful than some full productions of that classic play. Two: Ferver stares into a mirror, with only a candle in his hand for lighting, and repeats “I am not afraid” while a figure portraying Death stalks the darkened theatre. It’s genuinely chilling. This performance piece, inspired by the tragic life of Fred Herko, illuminates how artists combat their fears—of madness, of failure, of death—with their best weapons: art and wit. Ferver has plenty of both.
February 26, 2015
Bright Half Life @ Women’s Project
Tanya Barfield’s two-hander gives us a lesbian relationship over two and half decades—but in a theatrical style that slips back and forth over time, fragmenting a linear narrative into a kaleidoscopic whirl. The technique might be cinematic, but the results, guided by director Leigh Silverman, are purely theatrical. Shifting over time and space with incredible speed, the bare stage comes to represent dozens of locations, and Rebecca Henderson and Rachael Holmes represent these women at various stages of their lives. Some of their life events might be “typical,” but others are grounded in their specific experiences as an interracial lesbian couple. Even if you’ve never immersed yourself in theories of “queer temporality,” Barfield’s play will offer you a beautiful and evocative depiction of two women in and out of love—and in and out of time.
March 21, 2015
I’m Looking for Helen Twelvetrees @ Abrons Arts Center
In 1951, Helen Twelvetrees, who had been a Hollywood leading lady in the 1930s, was performing Blanche DuBois in a summerstock production on Long Island. From this fact, David Greenspan—playwright, actor, and blinding genius—creates a theatrical fantasia about a fan tracking down the now-forgotten Hollywood star. He imagines her drama—failing career, addiction, and multiple husbands—through the lens of his own life, combining her biography, his biography, her starring roles, and his gay fantasies. A certain sadness pervades this play about loss, yet Greenspan renders it with such artistry, aided by (clearly one of my favorite directors) Leigh Silverman, so the experience is ultimately sweet. And it made me want to watch obscure pre-code movies starring Helen Twelvetrees.
March 28, 2015
Gender/Power @ Gibney Dance Center
Complemented by the video portraits of Maya Ciarrocchi, three transgender / genderqueer performers tell their stories to each other and to the audience. While the narratives are largely autobiographical, they also “slip” among the performers, resulting in a sense that all of them, while having different experiences, overlap in interesting ways. Becca Blackwell, James Tigger Ferguson, and Kris Grey are all compelling performers who connect with the audience, and they’re also very smart about analyzing and theorizing their own experiences: queer childhoods, bathroom confrontations, workplace dress codes, abusive relationships, etc. Ciarrocchi and Grey have continued to develop this piece, creating different iterations with different performers, including the fabulous Pamela Sneed.
March 31, 2015
Fun Home @ Circle in the Square
To understand the significance of Fun Home, the Broadway musical based on Alison Bechdel’s amazing graphic memoir, I recommend listening to “When You’re Good To Mama” from Chicago—and then listening to “Changing My Major” from Fun Home. Since Chicago has been running for almost two decades, Matron Mama Morton is the lesbian character seen by the greatest number of people in Broadway history. She’s strident, brassy, and expresses lesbian desire through vulgar innuendo and double entendre. In contrast, Medium Allison in Fun Home is a college student who has just fallen in love and had sex for the first time. She’s naively exuberant, vulnerable, and even a little scared. Instead of harsh brass, we hear sweet strings; instead of innuendo and coercion, we have heartfelt and forthright desire. Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori have successfully translated Bechdel’s book to the musical stage, and Sam Gold’s re-direction of the production for Broadway made the show all the more nuanced, intimate, and affecting. It deserves its Tony Awards.
April 17, 2015
Bird in the House @ LaMaMa
Dane Terry, with tattoos on his arms and long scraggly hair touching the collar of his plain white t-shirt, sits at a baby grand piano, accompanied by drums, bass, and two female singers. With songs taken from his album Color Movies, he tells a fantastic narrative of queer childhood: the night he met another gay boy at the pool, woke up in the woods, and was accused of burning down the condiment factory that had recently fired his mother. His piano playing is expressive, nimble, and remarkably accomplished, and what first appear to be “shaggy dog” anecdotes coalesce into riveting storytelling. Dane comes from the Hilltop neighborhood of Columbus, Ohio, and seems to have traveled into outer space and somehow landed in Brooklyn. Following him on that journey is a total pleasure.
July 18, 2015
Pound @ Dixon Place
Marga Gomez is probably one of the funniest people I’ve ever seen on stage. Part stand-up comedian, part performance artist, and part cultural critic, Marga has created a one-woman show in which she fantasizes about meeting all the lesbians from cinema history. There’s the tortured schoolteacher from The Children’s Hour, the doomed farmgirl from The Fox, and the hot ex-con from Bound. While offering a critique of lesbian representation, the show also takes great pleasure in speaking forthrightly about lesbian sexuality and the female body. Marga is exuberant and fearless. If you’re up for it, I highly recommend a double feature of Bound and Pound.
August 21, 2015
Rope @ HERE
Brendan Drake choreographed this four-member ensemble piece inspired by Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, loosely based on the gay murderers Leopold and Loeb. The soundtrack includes snippets from that 1948 film, along with the scene from Red River in which Monty Clift exchanges guns with handsome cowboy John Ireland. Drake takes the coded homoerotic subtext of these films and makes it evident with dances that blur the line between sexuality and violence. As in Gomez’s Pound, Drake’s Rope offers a critique of Hollywood representations of homosexuality, but also finds a certain pleasure and eroticism in them. This vision of male-male relationships is dark, perhaps even threatening, but it’s also rendered aesthetically compelling through the art of dance.
September 20, 2015
Cloud 9 @ Atlantic Theatre
There’s an amazing moment at the end James MacDonald’s revival of Caryl Churchill’s masterpiece about gender and sexuality when Chris Perfetti hugs Brooke Bloom. In Act One, Mr. Perfetti (in excellent drag) plays Betty, the unhappy young mother with an effeminate son named Edward, played by Ms. Bloom. In Act Two, they are 25 years older, and Bloom now plays the mature Betty, while Perfetti plays the adult version of Edward. So, if you’re following the casting, “mother” and “son” have essentially switched places. But in a magical moment, Betty from Act One and Betty from Act Two embrace, bringing together not just the old self and the young self, but also mother and son from Act One, and son and mother from Act Two. That might sound a bit complex, but in performance it’s elegantly clear and incredibly beautiful. Cloud 9 premiered in 1979, and in the intervening years we may have witnessed a couple more waves of feminism and marriage equality, but Churchill’s insights into gender and sexuality have not dated. Indeed, we might finally be catching up to her.
October 20, 2015
Veritas @ The Cave
Full Disclosure: I worked on this production. As a dramaturg with a specialization in representations of homosexuality, I couldn’t have asked for a better gig. Veritas is about Harvard University’s secret trials to find and expel students who “practiced homosexualism” in 1920. Playwright Stan Richardson, working from documents long hidden in the university’s archive, constructed a smart, sexy, and complex play about the young men who were the victims of this witch hunt. Under the direction of The Representatives, a theatre company known for “radical intimacy,” a diverse ensemble of ten actors performed in the basement of a gothic church, often just inches away from the audience seated around the space. Veritas tells the story of a small secret community destroyed by the forces of homophobia, but at each performance the audience saw that community brought back to life in all its youthful energy and fragility. No matter how many times I saw it, I was always deeply moved.
November 1, 2015
Hir @ Playwrights Horizons
There’s an act of violence in the second act of this play that made me gasp. Not because it’s gory, but because it marks a stunning and decisive turning point in a familial struggle, carrying great emotional and ideological weight. I won’t spoil it for you. The moment is so evocative because Taylor Mac’s absurdist-realist play works on one level as a domestic family drama, but on another level as an allegory for the ideological conflicts between patriarchy, radical feminism, liberalism, and the new trans-queer movement. Kristine Neilson, one of our funniest actresses, is daffy as ever, but here gets to go a bit darker in her role as a newly empowered mother, helping her transgender teenage son explode the gender binary, while her other son has come home from the war and would like a little more order, thank you very much. I took a group of 19 college students to see this production, and their enthusiastic response solidified my decision to give this play a permanent place on my queer theatre syllabus. The Playwrights Horizons production is also remarkable because it instigated a shift toward trans inclusion in casting calls in the New York theater.
December 26, 2015
Invisible Thread @ Second Stage
Griffin Matthews plays himself in this autobiographical musical, co-authored with Matt Gould, about a young gay black man searching for connection. The plot is set in motion when Griffin comes out at church and finds himself exiled from the choir. He then goes on a journey to Uganda, where his savoir complex and his fantasies about connecting to his roots are sorely tested. But in his quest to help a group of Ugandan orphans, he does find a purpose—and it also brings about one of the most moving “homecomings” I’ve seen on stage. Urged on by his Jewish boyfriend Ryan, Griffin goes back to the church to ask for their help. They not only help him raise funds, but they invite him back into the choir. Melody Betts leads the full ensemble in a gospel song, “Bela Musana” (“Be The Light”), that stops the show and brings the crowd to its feet. Here is the reconnection that the audience needed to witness: a queer young man embraced in song by the community that had previously rejected him. It’s a beautiful and powerful moment of musical theatre.
Some (Killer) Queer Plays I Previously Blogged About in 2015: Angry Fags, Revenge of the Popinjay, Why Is Eartha Kitt Trying to Kill Me?, and Another Medea.