Monkey Dancing; Love Is Alive; Together Alone; Midwest Side Story; People Like Us | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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Monkey Dancing; Love Is Alive; Together Alone; Midwest Side Story; People Like Us

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MONKEY DANCING

Bailiwick Repertory

LOVE IS ALIVE

Upstart Theatre Company

at Red Bones Theatre

TOGETHER ALONE

Upstart Theatre Company

at Red Bones Theatre

MIDWEST SIDE STORY

Organic Theater Company Greenhouse, Lab Theater

PEOPLE LIKE US

Circle Theatre

In 1984, when I was editor of the old GayLife newspaper, gay and lesbian theater was a small, sporadic presence on the Chicago scene. A few community-based troupes (such as Lionheart, Speak Its Name, and the Drama Shelter) intermittently produced a solid, small body of work over the years, but gay theater was a fringe within the off-Loop fringe; when a few professional producers tried to mount gay-themed shows during Gay and Lesbian Pride Week, their efforts met with a weak response.

A decade later, what a change there's been. From the western suburbs to the north side's Homo Heights, theater and performance constitute a sizable chunk of the activities surrounding the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall riots that launched the gay-rights movement.

Gay liberation was a distinctly American--indeed, New York phenomenon at first; so it's interesting that the most provocative play I saw in a weekend of gay-pride theatergoing is from England. Monkey Dancing, the opening entry in Bailiwick Repertory's Pride Performance Series, was written by London fringe artist Claire Dowie as a showcase for her own high-energy performance style; it serves as a fine vehicle for others in this superbly acted Chicago premiere. A variation on motifs familiar from Cabaret and Peter Pan, it concerns an intense relationship between a free-spirited rebel and a more average person who can't resist the usual cycle of growing up and fitting in. Max and Max are nearly physical twins--tall, thin, boyish blonds--who think they're psychic siblings as well. Male Max is a gay American studying at London University in the 1970s; he meets female Max when, thinking she's a boy, he gropes her at a disco. (Surprise!) Their friendship provides a warmth absent from their sexual encounters, and they form a bond that confuses their lovers and appalls their gay and lesbian separatist chums. But defying labels is part of what draws them so close--until he becomes more conformist and she angrily blasts him for "monkey dancing," performing for the crowd like a trained chimp.

Monkey Dancing is buoyed by a charming performance from Ron Wells and an absolutely charismatic one from Anne von Herrmann, and its delightful first act is full of bratty, intelligent, quirky humor that underscores rather than masks the turmoil of the young, questing characters. Even as we recognize the despair behind the manic-depressive female Max's boisterous bravado, we cheer her iconoclastic attitude and its liberating effect on her more orthodox friend. But act two succumbs to strident preachiness, criticizing male Max's (and, by implication, the gay movement's) switch from the freewheeling experimentalism of the 70s to 80s assimilationism and romanticizing female Max's mental illness as the ultimate independence. Still, the sharp, sensitive performances (under Marc Rosenbush's direction) and the script's offbeat take on many issues make Monkey Dancing fine, feisty theater.

Franco Ray's drama Love Is Alive also concerns conflicts in a male/female friendship. Anguished by his lover Jake's long decline from AIDS, schoolteacher Michael decides to take his pal Susan up on her suggestion that they have a baby together--and none of that artificial insemination jazz, thank you. Though Jake urges Michael to find another boyfriend now that their sex life is over, he doesn't approve of Michael's flirtation with heterosexuality and fatherhood; but Michael feels that consummating his friendship with Susan and raising a child with her will fill the void in his life Jake's death will create. Susan, whose life has revolved around her gay friends since her divorce, is in love with Michael but recognizes that she's at best a substitute for Jake; she's torn between going ahead with the pregnancy and confronting Michael about his conflicted feelings.

Soap opera to be sure, but potentially resonant in its head-on approach to life-and-death issues. But Ray, who's also the director, producer, and star of this low-budget Upstart Theatre Company effort, strikes only intermittent sparks of tension and passion. His dialogue and staging rarely rise above the pedestrian, and the play's emotional tone is earnest but nothing more. Debra Rodkin as Susan brings much-needed energy and spontaneity to the scenes she's in; and Ray is an appealing actor capable of emotional intensity--as he demonstrates in a climactic crying jag that suggests he wrote Love Is Alive as a showpiece for himself, a la Torch Song Trilogy. But Harvey Fierstein he's not.

Ray's erratically paced direction is also a problem in Together Alone, a 1992 Upstart show revived as a late-night companion to Love Is Alive. Adapted by (you guessed it) Ray from a film by P.J. Castellaneta, this one-act depicts a conversation between two young men, Bryan and Brian, who've just met and made love. Bryan is an uptight kid prone to postadolescent philosophizing (often tedious in Clifford Broadway's monotonous performance); Brian seems a far more relaxed sensualist (especially as played in the almost-altogether by hunky Darren Stephens). But despite his assertions of sexual assurance, Brian eventually reveals chinks in his psychic armor, as the conversation ranges through such topics as fucking versus getting fucked, whether bisexuality is real or a cop-out, fear of intimacy, and sexual responsibility in the age of AIDS.

But the talk has a stilted quality that suggests dramatized self-interrogation, a notion reinforced by the characters' names; it's as if Brian and Bryan are two sides of the author rather than real individuals conversing--and as a result we never really care whether they resolve their crises or not. The script raises a number of concerns--some specifically gay, many universal--likely to strike chords in most viewers; if only it stirred dramatic interest as well.

In Midwest Side Story, a "gay man's guide to life after Franciscanism," monologuist John McGivern discusses his boyhood as an Irish Catholic homosexual in Milwaukee. Some of his anecdotes about grade-school embarrassment will ring painfully and amusingly true to almost everyone; others might be more of an oddity, such as his sissy attraction to Barbie dolls instead of baseballs. Not that he hated all sports. He enjoyed watching boxing, for instance--hot men wearing only shorts and gloves appealed to his obsession with accessorization, among other interests. Later passages darken the show's tone: McGivern's expulsion from seminary for homosexuality (and his predilection for sacrilegious humor), for instance, and a tough-love confrontation with his very large family about his drug and alcohol addiction. But McGivern treats every subject with disarming, slightly fey candor, neither apologetic nor outrageous.

Much of this intermissionless program's later portions leave a bitter aftertaste, as one realizes that McGivern hasn't shown any joy in his life: he says nothing about lovers, except for a reference to a tawdry one-way romance in high school. This lapse isn't likely to interfere with one's enjoyment of the show while it's happening, because McGivern's an extremely effective performer who combines emotional honesty with skillful vocal and physical delivery. He's a natural comic presence who shifts easily between funny and serious material and speaks from an unabashedly gay and Catholic perspective to a diverse audience without compromising himself. Like Quentin Crisp (though not as flamboyant), he can have fun with the stereotypes of the campy clown while exploring the reality behind those stereotypes.

People Like Us, lamentably, is all stereotype and zero reality. It purports to satirize a question of political correctness: can members of a minority group represent that group in ways that would be deemed derogatory if done by anyone else? A heterosexual playwright, Tommy, poses as gay to promote his farce about an antique dealer who seduces seminarians. The questionable but potentially interesting premise is compromised by the fact that the play within the play is homophobic trash that no self-respecting gay artist would ever claim; the problem isn't that Tommy's straight, it's that he can't write a play.

Neither apparently can People Like Us authors Marc Stopeck and Jon Steinhagen, who exploit every stupid cliche about nostril-flaring, cheek-sucking queers, sex-starved fag hags, and overbearing Jewish mamas--then inject a bitter note by revealing that Paul, the promiscuous queen who's in love with Tommy, is HIV-positive. The falseness of the rest of the show trivializes the AIDS issue, which in turn undermines the few laughs the script's cheap gags have created thus far.

This is short-attention-span theater, a TV hybrid in which character and plot development are consistently jettisoned in favor of dumb jokes and simpleminded caricatures. Some of these succeed on sheer brash energy, such as Deanna Norman as Tommy's lesbian mother leading a homophile hora at the end of act one. Norman's a strong performer, and she's not alone; director Karen Skinner has assembled a good cast, and they work overtime to redeem the material. But People Like Us bears little resemblance to the truth of gay life (or theatrical life, for that matter). As a Stonewall-anniversary offering, it proves only that the more gay theater there is, the more likely that some of it will be pretty damn bad.

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