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On Stage: busted dreams of gay utopia



Rick Paul remembers exactly where and when he conceived of Lionheart Gay Theatre, Chicago's longest-surviving company devoted to lesbian and gay plays.

"It started on the train to the 1979 March on Washington," which drew some 175,000 gay-rights supporters to the nation's capital, the director-designer-playwright recalls. "I was sitting with an actor and playwright I knew, and we were talking about the need to support theater specifically of and for the gay community. I'll never forget it: we were passing through Muncie, Indiana--the fruit jar capital of America."

Taking the name Lionheart in honor of the medieval English homosexual warrior-king Richard, Paul set out to establish a troupe that would encourage maximum creativity with minimum resources and responsibilities. A well-known and accomplished set designer at such venues as Kingston Mines (where he designed the set for the world premiere of the musical Grease), the Ivanhoe, Victory Gardens, and the Organic, he consciously eschewed the administrative apparatus of professional theater for his own company. Bankrolled by Paul's income as an art director for theater and, more recently, film (his credits include the cult hit Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer), Lionheart donates all box-office receipts to gay and lesbian community organizations. With no board, no bank account, no papers of incorporation, and no home base except Paul's portfolio, it has produced new works by 25 Chicago writers and showcased some 100 actors over the years.

While most gay and lesbian plays have traditionally focused on accepting one's homosexual identity or on building and destroying domestic relationships, Lionheart has sought to shed light on less common aspects of the homosexual experience. Its efforts have ranged from a reading of letters from gay inmates to full-blown dramas based on pirate lore and ancient Greek history to a cabaret revue inspired by scientific research into animal homosexuality to the camp comedy Gunsel, a gangster spoof written by Paul and Lawrence Bommer that was a late-night underground hit at the Theatre Building in 1982. Lionheart's pioneering One received international attention in 1983 as the first play about AIDS.

AIDS figures in Lionheart's latest production, running this weekend and next--a double bill of (Wild) Person, Tense (Dog), by the late San Francisco writer Robert Chesley, and Minutes From Moonburst, by Paul. But the real theme of this pair of shows--featuring a five-man cast under Paul's direction--is the aspiration toward, and eventual disillusionment with, a gay utopian vision as expressed in two very different subcultures: the San Francisco leather bar scene and the little-known "radical faerie" movement.

Chesley, who died of AIDS last month at the age of 47, was a theater critic and playwright best known in Chicago for Jerker (which played the last two summers at Bailiwick Repertory), the story of two men who conduct a love affair entirely by telephone. Like Jerker (which was the center of national controversy when the Federal Communications Commission tightened its antiobscenity restrictions after a Los Angeles radio station broadcast scenes from the play), (Wild) Person, Tense (Dog) employs erotically explicit and poetically phrased language; it is a pair of interlocking monologues by two men, former sexual partners who encounter each other in a bar. Both now have AIDS; one is in advanced stages of illness, and the other man, Dog, tries to ignore his old friend even as he dwells on the memory of their lovemaking. "It's a wilderness, Dog," says the sicker man. "You can erect a wall between us, but we're still in that same wilderness, beneath that moon."

Minutes From Moonburst puts Chesley's wilderness metaphor to more literal use by tracking the experiences of a group of men who attempt to create a gay rural commune. The "radical faeries," as these men call themselves, disdain "white male patriarchal competitive heterosexual cindered" city life and establish a sanctuary in the woods; there they seek a new and happier spiritual life. But they must also come to grips with their own internal power struggles, as well as hostile neighbors, trouble-making politicians, recalcitrant insurance companies, unpredictable weather, and errant cows.

The faeries model their system on ancient European shamanism, with its belief in an unseen spiritual world. Paul's script combines the faeries' pagan rituals with humorous anecdotes pulled from or suggested by newsletters and published minutes from real faerie communes. Paul himself has had a long-term relationship with the faerie movement (which was launched in 1979 at a festival in Arizona), but admits that his play reflects his own ambivalence toward such utopian groupthink. "I'm anti true-believerism," he says. "People so easily slip into that. . . . There's an old warning: when you shamanize, you have to shamanize alone."

Nonetheless, community service is at the core of Lionheart's mission. (Wild) Person, Tense (Dog) and Minutes From Moonburst are being staged as a benefit for the Rodde Center, Chicago's gay and lesbian community center, which recently opened new headquarters on the top floor of the Uptown National Bank Building. The production will take place there, Paul says, to show off the facility. "It's like a penthouse," he says. "You can see the city lights twinkling outside the window. I guess you could call it our aerie faerie."

(Wild) Person, Tense (Dog) and Minutes From Moonburst will be performed at 7 PM Friday and Saturday, January 25 and 26 and February 1 and 2, at the Rodde Center, 4753 N. Broadway, suite 1200. General admission is $4; for more information, call 271-4155.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Eshelman.

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