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by Steven LaVigne
Every other year, the American Association of Community Theatres hosts a national one-act play festival. The Minnesota Chapter held its MACTFest: Plays in Paradise, March 12-15, 2009 in Faribault. I only attended one day of performances, and won’t comment on my own production of Noel Coward’s “Still Life,” but of the four other shows I saw, two had queer content, one of which was wrongfully honored with “Best in Show.”
The Dakota Fine Arts Consortium of Burnsville staged gay playwright Christopher Durang’s slight comedy, “Wanda’s Visit.” The plot follows a married couple, Jim and Marsha, who are hosting Jim’s high school girlfriend, Wanda, for a weekend visit. As with most of Durang’s writing, chaos is the order of the play, and Murphy’s Law is at work here. It turns out that since high school, Wanda’s life experiences have been questionable, and she’s escaped from a mental hospital. The problem with this production was that the entire thing was played at fever pitch, sending the audience in hysterics, but allowing no levels for developing an emotional relationship with the characters. Directed in pedestrian style by Kevin Schrammen, the set featured a toilet at stage center, thus reducing the script further to little more than bad sitcom humor. Mary Beth King as Marsha, embarrassingly braved this awful venture, and was awarded for her performance in the thankless role of the wife.
Little is known about playwright William Hanley, but his 1962 drama, “Whisper into My Good Ear” is superb. Set on the lakeshore in Central Park on a pleasant December afternoon, two retirees, Charlie and Max have met to fulfill a suicide pact. As the story unfolds, we learn that Charlie is willing to live longer. Max is determined to off himself, because he’s tired of living a lie: he’s gay and doesn’t want to hide behind an invented family any longer. Beautifully directed by Frank Blomgren and performed by Mark Margolis and Dan Dyke, the pair should have been honored for their performances, but like so many at this festival, walked away empty-handed, except for a participation certificate.
A visit to New York is always a good way for lifting my theater spirits, and two shows on Broadway by gay playwrights were worth a visit, one of which, at this writing, is still playing.
Noel Coward’s “Blithe Spirit” was written during the war years to take London audiences’ minds off the tensions of the Blitz. Michael Blakemore has delivered a smashing revival at the Shubert Theatre, worth seeing, if for no other reason than its brought Angela Lansbury back to the theater. In her fifth Tony Award-winning performance, Lansbury stars as the madcap medium Madame Arcati, whose antics set the plot into motion. Gay actor Rupert Everett plays author Charles Condomine, whose first wife, Elvira (Christine Ebersole) returns after a séance. His second wife, Ruth (Jayne Atkinson, who gives a marvelous performance), rightfully flies off the handle and as Elvira makes mischief, becomes a blithe spirit herself. Blakemore has assembled a fine cast which features Simon Jones, Deborah Rush and Susan Louise O’Connor as a marvelously dimwitted Edith, the maid who has hidden powers. Blithe Spirit is perhaps Coward’s most frequently produced play, and this brilliant revival should invest new interest in this superb evening of comedy.
Moises Kaufman is the gay playwright and director who’s Tectonic Theatre Project has given us such fine works as “Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde” and “The Laramie Project,” the exploration of life in the Wyoming town where Matthew Shepherd became the victim of a hate crime. His latest play, “33 Variations,” was presented at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre this spring. It’s a captivating drama about Dr. Katherine Brandt (Jane Fonda), a musicologist who travels to Bonn, where she can study the notes on Beethoven’s 33 Variations of Diabelli’s Waltz. The script moves back and forth in time, dramatizing the story behind Beethoven’s fascination with Diabelli and Anton Schindler’s unrequited, but obvious love for and protection of the composer, contrasting it with Katherine’s own health issues as her body succumbs to ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease), while her estranged daughter, Clara, becomes her mother’s caregiver. Clara also falls in love with Mike Clark, the nurse hired to ease Katherine through her illness.
Tony-nominated Fonda delivers a passionate performance, leading a cast that includes Samantha Mathis as Clara, Colin Hanks as Mike, gay actor Don Amendolia as Diabelli, and Zach Grenier as a harried Beethoven. Erik Steele plays Schindler as an 18th Century Mr. Smithers. “33 Variations” has closed on Broadway, but should have a long life, because it is an outstanding play.
The Minneapolis Musical Theatre is always looking for ways to expand its repertoire while challenging itself, and their 2009 gay pride presentation, the area premiere of Alexander Dinelaris and Tim Acito’s “Zanna Don’t” is no exception. Set at Hartsville High, Zanna (Bart Ruf) is something of a fairy godfather. He gets advice from a bird, and wields a magic wand as he asks "Who’s Got Extra Love?" While he’s busy playing matchmaker, bringing together the football hunk, Steve (Alan Wales), and the chess champ, Mike (Joseph Bombard), the mechanical bull champ, Kate (Anna Carol), and his friend, Roberta (Emily Brooke Hansen in an outstanding performance), and others, Zanna is too busy to pay attention to his own love life. When Candi (Andrea Alioto), the extracurricular queen of the school, gets the drama club to produce an original musical about straights in the military, problems arise as gays find themselves attracted to the opposite sex.
If the plot sounds like a trifle, it is, but under Steve Meerdink’s sure-handed direction, the show pulls out all the stops for a good time, and the energy the cast releases is engaging and infectious. The characters may all be stereotypes, and the story raises questions of tolerance as it places Cinderella’s slipper on the other foot, but that doesn’t matter. With a showstopper like “Fast” and other thrilling songs to entertain, not to mention the talented cast that also includes Andrew Newman and C. Ryan Shipley, each member of the ensemble manages to make their characters their own. “Zanna Don’t” is a superb way of celebrating Stonewall 40 at the theater!
Three-and-a-half decades ago, gay director-choreographer Michael Bennett’s inspired idea to shape a series of taped interviews into a musical became one of the most influencial musicals of the American Theatre, “A Chorus Line.” With a book by gay writers James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante, lyrics by Edward Kleban and music by Marvin Hamlisch, the show went on to earn the 1976 Pulitzer Prize for drama, and became one of Broadway’s longest-running hits. A 2006 revival lasted over a year and that production is now on tour, staged by the original co-director, Bob Avian, with Bennett’s choreography restaged by Baayork Lee, the original Connie.
What is revealed in this revival are the strengths of the libretto and how individual performers can enhance the characters by adding their own personalities, and how a different pair of eyes can fix business that didn’t quite work before. Both of these are evident in the new production. Avian has also found an emotional level that was missing from Bennett’s original staging. Each character here shines in their own particular moments, while Clyde Alves’ Mike, Dena Digiacinto’s Bebe, Jessica Latshaw’s Kristine, Rebecca Riker’s Diana, and of course, both Bryan Knowlton’s Paul and Robyn Hurder’s triumphant Cassie are highlights here. If there are criticisms, they are that at certain times, singers couldn’t be heard over Patrick Vaccariello’s orchestra, especially Val’s (Mindy Doughterty) Dance. Nonetheless, “A Chorus Line” remains one of the defining moments of the American Musical Theatre and is a show to be treasured.
The Guthrie Theatre is honoring Pulitzer Prize-winning gay playwright Tony Kushner with a trio of productions, including the premiere of his latest play, “The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures.” Because Kushner has asked that it not be reviewed, and because people have told me they admired the ideas, but that it’s essentially a "three-and-a-half hour family argument," that resembles "overwrought, second rate Arthur Miller," I couldn’t bring myself to see it. Following this production, it’s expected to go through rewrites (and let’s hope, cutting) and head for Broadway. Kushner strikes me as being full of himself, but with some sensible editing, the play could be a fascinating evening of drama.