Her Aching Heart/Oh, Holy Allen Ginsberg: Oh, Holy Shit Sweet Jesus Tantric Buddha Dharma Road | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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Her Aching Heart/Oh, Holy Allen Ginsberg: Oh, Holy Shit Sweet Jesus Tantric Buddha Dharma Road

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HER ACHING HEART

Bailiwick Repertory

at the Theatre Building

OH, HOLY ALLEN GINSBERG: OH, HOLY SHIT SWEET JESUS TANTRIC BUDDHA DHARMA ROAD

Bailiwick Repertory

at the Theatre Building

The exciting thing about Bailiwick's Pride Performance Series is the chance it offers to see world-premiere gay plays in an environment that encourages experimentation and allows for the occasional screwup. Both Her Aching Heart, by Bryony Lavery, and Oh, Holy Allen Ginsberg: Oh, Holy Shit Sweet Jesus Tantric Buddha Dharma Road, by Nicholas A. Patricca, are given sturdy, intelligent productions. Directors Beverly Brumm (Heart) and Steve Scott (Ginsberg) showcase the playwrights' work rather than their own, and as a result the play's strengths as well as weaknesses are readily apparent.

Her Aching Heart is a send-up of gothic romances. Two contemporary women, Harriet (Sara Nichols) and Molly (Teri Clark), happen to be reading the same cheesy novel at the same time. While they pursue an utterly conventional relationship their literary counterparts--the haughty, willful aristocrat Harriet Hellstone and the simple country maiden Molly Penhallow--plunge into a tortured affair, complete with guilty kisses, foppish male courtiers, and even an occasional sword fight.

The literary scenes are delightful. Lavery has created a romantic potboiler and populated it with absurdly overdone characters. Harriet Hellstone is so haughty that she uses an old peasant woman's bent back as a carriage step. Molly Penhallow is so pure that she can bring even the bloodiest animal carcass back to life. Lavery indulges in every hackneyed literary trope and the most overwrought dialogue. Harriet describes the "fresh, fine, Cornish morning" by saying, "The sun streaks like a basset hound across the sky." Gazing upon Molly's bosom, her doting grandmother spies "the speckled eggs of truth in your chest nest."

It takes a rare imagination to create such exquisitely bad stuff without ever lapsing into cynicism: at no time does Lavery approach her material with a mean spirit. She clearly loves the trashy novels she satirizes, respecting the grand sweep of the passions they contain. And fortunately Lavery has two remarkably flexible and creative actresses, who meet nearly every challenge of the furiously paced script. Nichols and Clark dive into their roles, seemingly on the verge of bursting into hysterics. They play everything with an absolutely straight face, however, even as the audience groans at each new contrivance.

Next to the literary scenes the real-life scenes between Harriet and Molly seem rather flat. Both of them are unremarkable, even interchangeable, so the progress of their relationship doesn't seem of much importance. Little is dramatized in these scenes beyond a rather predictable romance. That may be the playwright's intention--contrasting the grandeur of romantic fantasies with the unremarkable routine of real love--but the tension between the two worlds is not successfully dramatized. Lavery needs to find a more compelling reason to interweave these two stories.

Oh, Holy Allen Ginsberg is a more ambitious play, examining an episode in the life of a Catholic priest confronting his debilitating guilt about his homosexuality as well as his fear of dying from AIDS. Father Gerry Gallagher (Patrick Dollymore) has left his lover of "six years and 51 weeks," Josh (Marc Silvia), because of these issues. But when performance artist and Buddhist wannabe Michael (Fred Schleicher) enters into the mix, Gallagher learns that love--all love--in the face of death is healthy and beautiful.

The play says all the right things: love between men is normal; poet priests have extolled it since antiquity; "homosexual" is a 19th-century clinical term describing sexual pathology and therefore should be replaced by the politically correct "queer"; the Catholic Church is decidedly anti-Christian in its attitudes toward gays. And the solid cast (which also includes Michael Goldberg, Justina Machado, and Tim Curtis) give clear, passionate performances. But as a piece of theater, Ginsberg is frustratingly unengaging.

Fundamentally, Patricca's characters are simply too small for the scope of his play. They're rather generic, without the depth of humanity needed to bring this highly intellectual work fully to life. Patricca seems aware of this problem at least on some level, for as the play progresses it seems to shrink, until most of the bigger issues have been replaced by a simple relationship drama between Gerry and Josh. The play's diminished scope seems more in keeping with the characters.

Patricca's characters also tend to explain their struggles--to other characters, to the audience, to themselves--rather than actually live them. We see the results of their inner turmoil--Gerry passionately explaining to Josh his reason for leaving, for example--but we rarely get the chance to see that critical moment when a character changes. In essence we have to take the play on faith, and sometimes it's hard to believe in a character when we haven't journeyed with him very far.

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