Before the century came out
'100 Years of Queer Theater' at Theatre Rhino
by Richard Dodds
The ambitiously titled 100 Years of Queer Theater, an eight-play production presented in three parts, proves a bit thin for the first 60 years or so. But the good news about Series A, which purports to cover 1900-1959, is that it is an evening of increasing returns. Thank goodness Tennessee Williams wrote And Tell Sad Stories of the Death of Queens in the late 1950s, thereby giving the first evening in this co-production between Eastenders and Theatre Rhino something meaty for the final course.
Actually, Williams didn't allow publication of the play, as he knew full well that its story was far too out of the closet for both the public and even his own already ragged reputation. Which also illustrates how few clearly queer plays one is apt to find to represent the early parts of the 20th century.
While choosing plays for the others series (1960-1979 and 1980-2000) was likely a matter of deciding what to leave out, the lack of choices for the early years leads to a true curiosity piece as the curtain-raiser. Mikhail Kuzmin's The Dangerous Precaution, written by the Russian novelist in 1907, has the potential of being a quirkily fun little farce, but the pieces don't really gel. Briefly, it's the story of a king (John Hutchinson) who, for security purposes, forces his son (Gene Mosey) to pretend to be a woman who is pretending to be a man. Complications ensue when a young prince (Aaron Martinsen) comes a-courting.
For whatever reason, Kuzmin included more songs than dialogue in his short play, a situation that doesn't well serve the current production. The original music to Kuzmin's lyrics is lost, and a new score has been provided by John W. Lowell. The performers are not particularly gifted singers, and working with pre-recorded tracks seems to further hamper their efforts. Director John Fisher's production is oddly paced, and efforts to make the music work can be strained, with a beginning dulled by a long solo sung by an offstage singer and then throwing in such devices as a calypso dance and a disco ball to enliven later numbers.
The Dove, the second play of the evening, certainly deserves the label "queer." First performed in 1926, Djuna Barnes' play is filled with the kind of symbolism that could give Freud an orgasm. Two unmarried sisters (Carolyn Doyle and Amanda Krampf) are obsessed with swords and guns, and they find a strange playmate in a young woman (Diana Dorel Gutierrez) whom they invite into their home. The sexual tension is thick, and so is a sense of danger as the weapons are stroked, polished, and brandished. Director Susan E. Evans has staged the play with an emphasis on its creepy opacity.
After Kuzmin and Barnes, Tennessee Williams is downright accessible despite the florid pen he is wielding. Playing off a line from Shakespeare's Richard II for a title, And Tell Sad Stories of the Death of Queens is the saga of a New Orleans decorator recently abandoned by his long-time partner. He picks up Karl, a sailor, who has a vocal disdain for all things queer, but that doesn't stop his suitor from trying to secure a new companion through chatter, booze, money, and a comfortable place to stay. Even the twittering gay couple (Dale Albright and Michael Vega) that lives upstairs knows Karl is bad news, but the warnings go unheeded as Karl's host even changes into his transvestite persona named Candy. "Just imagine this world without queens - barbarity," Candy tells the seemingly disgusted but curiously lingering Karl.
Drew Todd and Wiley Herman provide credible performances as, respectively, the desperately romantic Candy and the thuggish Karl, who can be seen as echoes of Blanche DuBois and Stanley Kowalski. Charles E. Polly has directed with a playful touch, even if the play doesn't exactly end gaily.
The three series comprising 100 Years of Queer Theater will run in repertory at Theatre Rhino through Nov. 23. Tickets are $15-25. Call 861-5079 or go to www.therhino.org.