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by Steven LaVigne
Men playing female roles is a conceit as old as theater. In spite of the movie “Shakespeare in Love,” - written by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard - the first Juliet was a man in drag, as were Medea, Hecuba and Ophelia. Sexist societies required strict sex-role career stereotypes, which eliminated women for most of the professional world.
Two remarkable productions at mainstream Twin Cities Theatres featured men playing women’s roles.
Gay playwright David Henry Hwang's landmark 1988 play “M. Butterfly” played at the Guthrie this spring in a gorgeous production staged by gay director Peter Rothstein. Using Puccini’s most famous composition, “Madame Butterfly” as a foundation, Hwang’s script is based on the story of Shi Pei Pu, a performer and spy in Maoist China. Shi was convicted of espionage with his lover, Bernard Boursicot, a married French diplomat, with whom he was involved for more than 20 years. Evidently, Boursicot never knew that Shi was a man, believing that Shi was the mother of his child.
Hwang fictionalized the drama, changing the names to Song Liling and Rene Gallimard. As Gallimard lies in prison, he passes the time journaling and listening to Puccini. While passages from the opera play in his mind (and above the central action), we learn about Gallimard’s adjustments to living with his wife in Beijing, meeting and becoming involved with Liling, and, over the passage of time, Liling’s true identity.
While the entire Guthrie ensemble is superb, kudos must be paid to Charity Jones as Helga Gallimard, the long suffering wife. Andrew Long as Gallimard, never leaves the stage and his is a performance worthy of extended praise, while Randy Reyes as Song Liling, gives an electrifying performance as M. Butterfly. This is an outstanding production, one that moves quickly and leaves the audience asking for more.
Hwang took serious dramatic license with this play, and brilliantly contrasted it with the tragic plot of Puccini’s opera, which, in turn, is based on a play by theatrical impresario David Belasco. In reality, the real Gallimard is living in a French nursing home following a stroke and the real Butterfly died at the age of 70 last July in Paris.
In 1956, bisexual author Edward Everett Tanner, under the pen name, Patrick Dennis, published a pseudo biography of his beloved Aunt Marion. Titled “Auntie Mame,” the book quickly became a bestseller. A year later, it was adapted for the stage by gay playwright Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee. Mame became the signature role for Rosalind Russell (who also did the film version). A decade later, Mame returned to Broadway with a score by gay composer Jerry Herman and starring the incandescent Angela Lansbury. (We won’t discuss the Lucille Ball film). Every Summer, the Minneapolis Musical Theatre presents a musical to celebrate gay pride. Three years ago, their musical director Kevin Hansen was featured as Zaza in “La Cage Aux Folles,” and this year he’s starring as Dennis’ celebrated aunt. Directed and Choreographed by gay director Steve Meerdink in the style of the old-fashioned musical it is, MMT’s Mame is a mixed bag that is at once an uplifting and entertaining evening and a tiresome drag (no pun intended).
For those familiar with the novel, play and movie, Lawrence and Lee’s libretto has always been wanting, mainly because it cuts the toppers on jokes that enhance character or define plot in favor of songs that don’t always fulfill the task. For example, modern audiences have no idea who gay actor Monty Woolley was; when the Stock Market crashes, Vera comments that she’s spent all her money at Tiffany’s, but the replacement line isn’t as effective. Finally, the scene where Mame meets her future husband, Beauregard Jackson Pickett Burnside, while selling roller skates at Macy’s has been replaced with one where she tries to give him a manicure.
It then falls, unfairly to the performer playing Mame to boost the show with high energy, covering up flaws. Hansen’s performance does this through most of the first act. There’s a youthful vigor to this Mame and the song where Mame offers to “Open a New Window” for her orphaned nephew is a highlight, and the title song brings the first act to a rousing conclusion. During Act 2, Crystal Manik as the mousy nanny, Agnes Gooch shines, especially with the show-stealing “Gooch’s Song.” Karen Weise-Thompson has a lot of fun with the role of actress Vera Charles, Paul R. Coate is a handsome Lindsay Woolsey and Ryan Halliday manages to make Ito his own.
However, the production eventually loses much of its effectiveness. For one thing, Graham Zima’s voice is changing, so his Young Patrick has serious problems with “My Best Girl.” Since the Musical Director, Lori Maxwell, had to change keys for Hansen, why not help out Zima while she was at it. Quinn Shadho never finds the shallow bitchiness of Gloria Upson, and given that Chrisitan Unser hasn’t got much to do as Beau, he never gives the part any pizzazz. Brent Teclaw overacts far too much as Babcock, as if he thinks himself the moral policeman of this production.
Next season, MMT will bring the area premieres of “Evil Dead, the Musical,” “Bare,” and “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” to the Twin Cities. I’ll look forward to seeing at least two of them.
Note from Steven LaVigne: