Although it might be an act of indulgence, creating a year-end list of favorite plays can perhaps serve as a reminder of the creative spirit, which has been not just a refuge but a force for love and hope, even survival and revolution, for queer people. It certainly has been for me. And we’re going to need that force.
As in previous years, this blog entry is not a “best of” list, just my own particular and peculiar experience of queer representation in the theatre for 2016. I missed plenty of worthy performances and wish I could have seen more. (Alas, I couldn’t commit 24 hours to Taylor Mac’s extraordinary song cycle—although I did see the 1930s-1950s segment in 2015 and loved it!)
Any connections among these 10 shows probably indicate more about my own tastes than any larger trends. As a scholar and fan of queer theatre, I’m drawn to plays that reflect upon the significance of queer theatre, including “meta” plays that parody, critique, and/or present the history of an earlier play. The list also includes plays that use non-linear time structures reflecting queer temporalities and performances that highlight the perils of normalization for queer people.
Here, then, offered with gratitude for the theatre artists who created these memorable experiences, is a snapshot of my queer theatre-going in New York in 2016.
O, Earth @ Foundry Theatre (HERE)
Thornton Wilder, Ellen DeGeneres, Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson share the stage in this highly theatrical queering of Our Town that also serves as a stirring critique of the trend toward “normalization.” Recasting George as a transman and the Stage Manager as an African American woman, Casey Llewellyn’s play asks who is included in our “Our” and who is left out, measuring the distance from the rebels of Stonewall to the conformists of today. What is the real goal of queer liberation? It probably looks a lot like O, Earth’s diverse ensemble dancing to Donna Summers’ disco classic, “MacArthur Park.”
Boy @ Keen Company / EST
Bobby Steggert gave a remarkable performance in Anna Ziegler’s play (inspired by a true story) about a boy raised as a girl who then asserts his identity as a man. Steggert’s performance, without any change in costume or affected mannerisms, achieved a fascinating gender fluidity as the play moved back and forth in time, allowing us to see the girl who will become a man, and the man who was a girl. The play is not about trans identity per se, yet it has the potential to strike a chord with anyone who has ever felt the pain of “failing” to conform to dominant notions of the gender binary. Steggert’s character must define his own sense of gender, and the actor gave a thoughtful and nuanced performance of that journey.
Locusts Have No King @ INTAR
This wild ride of a play about four gay priests borrows its basic structure from Albee’s Woolf: two couples meet for a party and, after rounds bitchy repartee, they face their truths. J. Julian Christopher writes with an admirably bold theatricality that brings a metaphysical dimension to the proceedings, with water that turns to wine, brimstone crashing through the window, and a stunning diabli ex machina in the form of the King of Locusts. Of course these are outward manifestations of the characters’ inner demons, created by the closet, a crisis in faith, and the search for a true calling. On the intimate stage at INTAR, New York’s preeminent Latino theatre, the play’s central love story, between two former lovers who still care for each other, was all the more affecting.
R*NT @ Performance Project at University Settlement
This performance piece combined a wonderfully askew rendition of Jonathan Larson’s famed musical about bohemians in the 1990s, Sarah Schulman’s critique of that musical, and the young cast’s own experiences of the show. Chris Tyler and the diverse ensemble take aim at gentrification and privilege, couched in astute observations regarding the difficulty of living an artist in New York City. The highlight for me was a monologue in which a woman talks about her first lesbian kiss during the film of Rent at a theatre in Colorado. This personal narrative managed to capture what’s potentially meaningful but also somewhat ridiculous about the musical, illuminating the strange ways in which popular culture intersects with our lives, a site of both identification and disidentification.
Gorey @ HERE
In this bio-play of Edward Gorey, three actors play the author and illustrator at different ages: recent college grad, successful middle age, and eccentric old man approaching death. Gorey was part of a pre-Stonewall gay circle (which included Frank O’Hara and George Balanchine), but he never quite felt comfortable in his sexuality. In 1983, at the height of the AIDS crisis, he fled NYC to become a recluse in Cape Cod, where he passed away in 2000. Like his work, Gorey is strange yet intriguing, particularly as portrayed by these three actors who have great rapport and credibly seem like the same person. The conversation across time of three different selves captured something beautiful and true about the ephemerality of art and life.
Indecent @ Vineyard
An ensemble of actors returns from the dead to tell the story of the Yiddish theatre troupe that performed God of Vengeance, Sholem Asch’s 1907 drama about a brothel owner whose daughter falls in love with one of his prostitutes. In Rebecca Taichman’s stunning production, Paula Vogel’s meta-play presents short scenes with musical interludes, moving forward at a quick clip with a Brechtian sense of the epic. We get a backstage view of Asch as an idealistic young writer, the thrill of the great Rudolf Schildkraut rehearsing the lead role, the romance between the two actresses who play the lesbian lovers, and the simple stage manager who is fiercely devoted to the play—which was shut down by the authorities when performed on Broadway in 1923. Indecent pays witness to the Holocaust and the demise of Yiddish culture, yet boldly imagines the lesbian lovers surviving, a fantasy of love and hope in dark times.
I Want You To Want Me @ The Kitchen
In this 70-minute dance play, Jack Ferver both honors and queers the “ballet horror” sub-genre of The Red Shoes, Suspiria, and Black Swan. He plays the evil witch Madame M, who murders one of her own ballerinas in order to seduce her boyfriend. Wonderfully striking in his shifting black dress and with wide eyes blotched with mascara, Ferver offers a subversive revenge fantasy against heterosexual norms, but also a camp reenactment of queer villainy as he hilariously attempts to take the place of the young ballerina. Still, Ferver can tap emotional depths, whether within the camp (“I don’t just believe in Hell, I’ve been there!!”) or in a sincere observation (“All we do in life is either give meaning or take meaning away”). I know of few other theatre artists who so perfectly exploit the fine line between absurdity and grace.
The Radicalization of Rolfe @ Fringe Festival
Andrew Bergh has written a smart parody of The Sound of Music that refocuses the story on the minor character of Liesl’s boyfriend Rolfe, the 17-going-on-18 messenger-boy who joins the Nazis. Conceptually, it takes something I’m sure many have thought when seeing the movie (“That Rolfe seems kinda gay”) and seriously asks, “What if he were?” Of course there’s a strong dose of camp, particularly for those who know the original material and will recognize all the references, but the play is also sincere in telling the story of a gay boy who joins the Nazis, both out of ambition and out of self-hatred. Just as Rolfe betrays the Von Trapps in the film, here he also betrays his lover Johan and his community, giving names of other gay people to a Nazi officer in order to save his own skin. Given the outcome of the November election, accomplished with the collaboration of some queer people, this play now strikes me as a little less funny and even more trenchant than it did in August.
The Wolves @ The Playwrights Realm
On a runway stage of green Astroturf, nine high school girls in uniforms prepare for a soccer match. Their talk ranges from their periods to the punishment of the Khmer Rouge and plenty of gossip. But they’re also serious and focused, amateur athletes who invest a lot in the game. Over the course of the season, some drama emerges—including lesbian and lesbian-ish relationships—but the real power of Sarah DeLappe’s play is in its subtle portrait of a team of women. Under the strong direction of Lila Neugebauer, the production has a visceral physical quality and might well be the best ensemble play for young women I’ve ever seen.
Homos, or Everyone in America @ Labyrinth
Jordan Seavey wrote this play that moves back and forth over five years in the life of a gay couple, played by Michael Urie and Robin De Jesus. The guys face jealousy, arguments about gay culture and sexuality, infidelity, breaking up, and a horrific gay bashing. It succeeds both as an intimate portrait of a couple and as a social analysis of a particular sub-culture that’s no longer as “sub” as it used to be. The Bank Street Theatre was arranged in a unique fashion, with risers in Tetris-like shapes made of untreated wood in four areas of the theater, creating oddly connecting runways in which the actors performed—an effective configuration for Seavey’s structurally and emotionally complex play.