What's going on here? As of this writing, six Colorado Springs theater companies have opened their seasons, and so far audiences are six-for-six. My guess, however, is that there are still too few potential audience members out taking advantage of the start of a remarkable local theater season.
Walking the Dead may deal in subject matter that scares some audiences away, but Upstart Performing Ensemble's production is a must-see event for anyone who cares about good theater, good stories and quality writing. The play deals with gay and lesbian relationships, mother-daughter relationships, violence and performance art. In other words, there's something to make everyone uneasy. But the storytelling is first-rate, mixing in humor and earned emotion with an undisguised love of language that brings out the best in an excellent cast.
The occasion for the play is a memorial service for Homer Tass. The service is coordinated by Homer's lover, Maya De Boats, a performance artist who enlists Homer's friends and family in a series of textual recreations of key moments from Homer's recent life, "compiling Veronica, unaltered by the drift of memory." Homer had recently been Veronica, Maya's lesbian lover, and occasionally, on weekends, had been Ron, testing out her theory that she was really a man mistakenly born into a woman's body. Eventually, she has a sex-change operation, complicating the nature of her lesbian relationship with Maya and essentially eliminating the prospect of continued communication with her mother.
Mary "Oh Mary" plays the role of Veronica/Homer with so much confidence and assurance that she subtly shifts the focus off of her central character and onto the characters surrounding her, trying to deal with her evolving circumstances. Part of her character's challenge is that she is always trying to support those around her as they struggle to support her life-changing decisions. "Oh Mary" is at her best when she can deal directly with her own obstacles, and she is particularly strong in a scene with a doctor in which she needs to make the case for being allowed into the sex change program.
One of the most subtle performances comes from Lynne Hastings as Maya. Hastings is utterly complete in her characterization, whether preparing her art by hammering nails into a styrofoam head and top-browning dildos in the toaster oven or struggling to keep up with Veronica/Homer's dizzying changes. Her reactions are as powerful as the most dramatic of actions on the stage, and her treatment of the script's language elevates the play considerably.
Tony Babin and Ricky Vila-Roger are also first-rate as Bobby and Chess, an unlikely gay couple with Babin as a cynical "self-loathing alcoholic queen" and Vila-Roger as the altruistic "gay next door," straight out of a Norman Lear sit-com. Vila-Roger succeeds at the difficult task of eliciting a strong performance out of a tentative character, and Babin mines some of the play's most emotional moments as his character confesses that he embodies every stereotype that he has ever ridiculed.
Ashley Crockett gives an extraordinary performance in the critical role of Dottie Tass, Veronica/Homer's mother. Crockett creates the definitive uptight prude, brimming with bigotry that is never quite as genteel as her apologies strive to be -- after various off-the-cuff diatribes, she takes time to assure us that she has nothing against choreographers, Jews or dwarfs. It's an hilarious role, but so much of the laughter that Dottie inspires is a form of self-defense, the release from the tension brought on by someone so horrifyingly over the edge in her attitudes and her inter-personal communications that laughter is the only acceptable response. Crockett always hangs onto the humanity of the character, and it is never hard to relate to her old-fashioned prejudices and misconceptions. For many, Dottie is the window into this world, and while we may not want to associate ourselves with her, we can relate to her discomfort and fear in trying to come to terms with the loss of "the pretty little girl" she thought she had raised.
Walking the Dead is everything that theater should be -- an interesting, challenging and moving new play. Not moving in an emotional, tear-jerking way -- although it has that potential -- but moving in terms of moving the minds, perspectives, attitudes and imaginations of those on stage and in the audience. It epitomizes the goals of the Gay and Lesbian Theater Festival as it simultaneously epitomizes the goals of contemporary theater.
Although its local run is over, and the festival moves on to productions of Forever After this week and Harvey Firestein's Safe Sex next week, there is a second chance to catch all of the festival's plays when the festival moves to Pueblo as part of an encore weekend at the Sangre de Cristo Arts Center. If the next two plays can live up to this first, Upstart will have pulled off a grand slam of a fall festival.