Issue:  Vol. 47 / No. 47 / 23 November 2017
 

A century of flamers

Backstage

Eastenders and Theatre Rhino co-present a festival of one-act plays


A scene from Tennessee Williams' And Tell Sad Stories of the Deaths of Queens, with Michael Vega and 'Drew Todd. Photo: Suzan A. Kendall
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Eastenders Repertory Company has made a specialty of one-act play festivals, and they often have "100 years of" in their titles. As in, 100 Years of Political Theatre, 100 Years of Sex-Acts, and 100 Years of Euro One-Acts. But when the troupe came up with the notion of 100 Years of Queer Theater, it proved a challenge to actually deliver on the 100-year promise.

"As you can imagine," said Eastenders Artistic Director Susan E. Evans, "it was very hard to find early pieces with gay or lesbian sensibilities, especially short plays. I did find some great pieces from the 20s and 30s, but they were all very long and usually have, like, 40 people in the cast."

In the end, two plays that fit the criteria were found to give representation to the early part of the 20th century in a festival that, given the rush of social and political changes in more recent years, is understandably weighted toward the 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s. The eight one-acts that make up the festival are broken up into three chronological evenings that will be presented on a rotating schedule through Nov. 23 at Theatre Rhino.

This marks the first co-production between Eastenders and Theatre Rhino, and while Rhino Artistic Director John Fisher was involved in the play selection and is directing one of the plays, he has let Eastenders take the artistic lead of the festival. "They have the system down," Fisher said. "It's an administrative headache that I would never take on. Somehow, Susan has figured out a way to rehearse all these actors who are in all these plays."

Evans, who is directing two of the one-acts, has sometimes used Excel spreadsheets to map out rehearsal schedules. "It's quite a challenge," she said, "but we keep getting better at it. On any given night, you might have two shows rehearsing in one location and two shows rehearsing in another, and each of the 18 actors may be in anywhere from one to three of the plays."

Evans, Fisher, and Eastenders founder and playwright-in-residence Charles Polly chose the plays in a long, complicated, and occasionally heated collaboration. "We had to sell each other on a few," Fisher said, "but we ended up agreeing on most of them. I think we read every gay one-act play ever written."


Here is a look at the plays that make up 100 Years of Queer Theater.

Series A (1900-1959)

Rhino's Assistant Artistic Director Matt Weimer gets credit for discovering The Dangerous Precaution, a short play with songs written in 1907 by Russian author Mikhail Kuzmin. As far as Evans and Fisher know, this is the first time the play has ever been staged, despite Kuzmin's fame for writing the homoerotic novella Wings. Fisher is staging the piece, and commissioned John Lowell to set Kuzmin's lyrics to music since the original score is lost. "It's an interesting little oddity," Evans said, "a sort of a cross-dressing fable."

Evans will direct Djuna Barnes' The Dove, first staged at Smith College in 1926. Barnes is best known for the seminal lesbian novel Nightwood, as well as her bohemian life in Greenwich Village and Paris. The play is loaded with symbolism -- two sexually frustrated sisters play with their collections of knives and guns -- and they also share an obsession with a young woman whom they have invited to live with them.

The festival then skips forward to the late 1950s, when Tennessee Williams wrote And Tell Sad Stories of the Death of Queens. But the play, about a gay transvestite who tries to find a lover from the rough trade he picks up in the Fren

A photo portrait by Berenice Abbott of seminal lesbian author Djuna Barnes, whose 1926 play The Dove is part of the festival.
ch Quarter, was not produced until 2004. Eastenders produced it in 2005, as part of its Sex-Acts festival, and Polly is directing the new production.

Series B (1960-1979)

The second part of the festival begins with Joe Orton's play Ruffian on the Stair. Written as a radio play, it was broadcast by the BBC in 1964 and was first staged two years later. It's the story of a poor London couple, a former prizefighter and an ex-prostitute, who are harassed by a stranger whose brother (who also happened to be his lover) was recently murdered. The BBC paid Orton 65 pounds for the 45-minute play, which was a rewrite of The Boy Hairdresser, a novel written with Kenneth Halliwell (Orton's lover and eventual murderer). Gina Baleria is the director.

Robert Patrick, a founding father of modern gay theater, is represented with his 1978 play T-Shirts. The satire on gay life focuses on a put-upon playwright, his leather-queen roommate, and a young man testing the waters outside the closet. It pictures the sexual marketplace, where youth and beauty are the only currency, as "a conglomerate as heartless as Con Ed." Jeff Thompson is directing the play, which marks Patrick's return to the Rhino stage. According to Patrick, who still handles the licensing of his plays, he was banned at one point by a previous Rhino administration for reasons that are now murky.

Series C (1980-2000)

Lesbian feminist Cherrie Moraga's Giving Up the Ghost had its premiere at Rhino in 1989, and Fisher had wanted to present an excerpt last year as part of Rhino's 30th-anniversary retrospective. But Moraga, currently an artist-in-residence at Stanford, wouldn't grant the rights unless Latina actresses were used. Fisher couldn't comply, but Moraga helped director Mary Guzman find Latina performers for her festival production. The darkly lyrical play is a portrait of a queer Chicana at two stages of her life and her relationship with an older Mexican-born woman.

AIDS arrives in the festival with Craig Lucas' Bad Dream, a 1992 play by the author of Prelude to a Kiss. The piece is a bedroom exchange between gay lovers, one of whom is HIV-positive, after one awakens from a nightmare. Jon Wai-keung Lowe is the director.

Tony Kushner (Angels in America ) brings the festival to a close with Terminating, or Lass Meine Schmerzen Nicht Verloren Sein, or Ambivalence. The 1998 play, inspired by Shakespeare's Sonnet No. 75, is a dialogue between an analyst and a patient, with the voices of their lovers added into a free-association mix. "Kushner has written very few short plays," said Evans, who is directing the piece, "and this one is sort of silly, but I like it as a closer. It's a little lighter, and it's got both gays and lesbians."

A schedule of which plays are being performed on what nights is available at www.therhino.org. Admission is discounted by 10% for those buying tickets to two series, and 20% for all three. More information is also available at 861-5079.

Richard Dodds can be reached at BARstage@comcast.net.






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