If Terrence McNally's name is not a household word yet, you may be living in the wrong house. McNally has won four Tony awards in five years for Ragtime (1998), Master Class (1996), Love! Valour! Compassion! (1995) and The Kiss of the Spiderwoman (1993), and you couldn't ask for a better playwright to open this year's fourth annual Gay and Lesbian Theater Festival.
The festival was originally started as a direct reaction to the controversy surrounding Colorado's Amendment 2, which was being argued in the Supreme Court when Upstart Performing Ensemble founder Tony Babin began laying the groundwork in 1995 as his own form of social activism. "I figured no matter how Amendment 2 end[ed] up," Babin explained during a break in rehearsal, "the festival would either be a celebration or [a reminder that] we've got more work to do."
Babin was also intrigued by the concept of using theater as a vehicle to promote understanding between gay and straight members of the community. "For some reason, straight people feel more comfortable about coming into a theater and dealing with these kinds of issues than seeing people march up and down the streets," he continued. "More people can relate to a play than they can a 500-pound drag queen on a float. They don't feel as threatened."
"The main goals of the festival," Babin explained, "are, first, to be a gift to the gay community, where they can go someplace and not feel out of place for a change. They can sit there and hold hands with each other, and nobody's going to care. And the second thing is an educational thing for straight people. If you want to really see what gay life is all about, come, because theater reflects society."
A third valid goal, perhaps too obvious to mention, is to stage an evening of hilarious and riveting theater worth watching by any standards. Although the plays were still in rehearsal at press time, McNally's Love! Valor! Compassion! is unquestionably one of the best-written American plays of the past decade. Colorado Springs needs the challenges and rewards inherent in a play of this caliber, and it is worth the gamble to see if Upstart can pull it off.
L!V!C! is reminiscent of The Big Chill, featuring an ensemble of friends gathered at a lakeside house in upstate New York. The strength of the script is its attention to character and relationships, its incessant sense of humor and its delicate treatment of basic human struggles. McNally employs a self-reflexive style of narration that works well, pushing the conventions and having fun with the form without losing a natural and realistic approach. The plot complications start off with a moment of infidelity in a dark kitchen late at night.
Gregory, an aging choreographer, is the host for the weekend, and his guests include his blind young lover, Bobby; Perry and Arthur, who have been a role-model couple for 14 years; Buzz, a quick-witted artist living with AIDS and obsessed with musical theater; John, a composer whom nobody likes, and his new partner, Ramon, a "horny Puerto Rican modern dancer" who is the catalyst for the play's action. Later in the play, John's antithesis, his lighthearted, charming and caring twin brother, James (their last name is Jeckyll), arrives from London, also with AIDS.
Buzz is furnished with the play's best lines, and the right actor can double their impact. Nathan Lane originated the part on Broadway, and Jason Alexander took up the mantle for the film version. Babin takes the role of Buzz for the festival, tackling a character audiences should find irresistible -- an intense, passionate and hilarious cutup immersed in masking his fear of dying alone. User-friendly characters like Buzz and Perry should provide steady, mature liaisons onstage, establishing an easy rapport with the audience. More than most plays, L!V!C! depends on this relationship with the audience members to build bridges and allow them to enter into what might otherwise appear as a distant and foreign world.
The play deals with mature themes, which is more of a compliment than a warning. McNally has created real characters and used them to put into perspective the full range of human relationships. There is nudity scripted into the play, and director Ricky Vila-Roger intends to perform the play as scripted, but there is little that could be considered threatening or offensive to any but the most rigid of the religious righteous.
The second play in the festival series, The Eye of the Gull, focuses on the interactions among 13 women spending a weekend at a seaside bed and breakfast that attracts a lesbian clientele. The play deals primarily with relationships, including the central treatment of a couple trying to survive the strain of dealing with the rite of passage of the retarded younger sister of one of the lovers.
Babin revealed that it has been difficult to find lesbian-themed plays: "I discovered that most lesbian writers are doing one-woman performance-art pieces, which is not really conducive to what we want to do." While some skittish observers comment that the festival consistently focuses on sexuality, Babin, Vila-Roger and Monica Kurtz, a cast member in The Eye of the Gull, emphatically reiterate that the plays are no more concerned with sexuality than a typical straight play would be.
"If you look at Eye of the Gull, it has absolutely nothing to do with sexuality," Kurtz asserted. "It's just about relationships. It could be six men and six women, it wouldn't matter. It's just about the complexities of being involved in a relationship."
The Twilight of the Golds is even less concerned with the topic of sexuality. The central characters in this play are a straight couple who use prenatal genetic testing to discover that their unborn child carries the "gay gene" and is destined for a life of homosexuality. The family must confront the question of whether or not to abort the pregnancy.
Vila-Roger, a participant since the first year, has been surprised at the lack of controversy surrounding the festival, and Babin and Kurtz echo his sentiment, noting that a little controversy is always good for box office. Nevertheless, "there's always fall out," Kurtz lamented. "The second year, a friend of mine who's not gay was in the festival, and she got totally slammed at work. Just for being involved. [She's] straight as an arrow."
Those audience members who don't assume that all the participants in gay- and lesbian-themed plays are gay often find themselves sidetracked by trying to figure out which actors are gay and which are straight. Babin has been so frustrated by this practice that he admits having been tempted "to put an asterisk by everyone's name who is gay so the audience would quit trying to wonder. In the director's note, I'd say, 'Now you know who's gay; concentrate on the show.' "
If the second two plays can live up to the promise of L!V!C!, audiences should have a hard time diverting their attention from the exceptional theatrical stories brought to life by vibrant and compellingly human characters. The festival may have a built-in audience in the gay and lesbian communities, but the notion that these plays would only appeal to gay and lesbian audiences is as ludicrous as suggesting that The Diary of Anne Frank would only appeal to Jews, The Sound of Music only to nuns, or Titus Andronicus only to cannibals. L!V!C! should be one of the freshest and most original productions in the area this year, and if attending seems a challenge, it's a challenge worth taking.