These days the rhetoric surrounding an event like Bailiwick's Pride Series tends to ring false. When it began in 1988, gay characters and themes were relatively rare on local and national stages. But ever since a queer political fantasia called Angels in America burst on the scene in the early 90s, gay theater has become more mainstream.
Bailiwick has attempted to maintain the Pride Series' vital countercultural stance in two ways. First, it's produced plays that focus on segments of the gay population that might send audiences fleeing: bears, bathhouse regulars, guys with daddy fetishes, leather men. But these scripts have too often been conventional and amateurish, reducing potentially transgressive material to the level of creaky community theater. Bailiwick has achieved much greater success with its second tactic: finding ways to put as much sex onstage as possible.
Not long ago I turned up my nose at Bailiwick's cavalcade of "cock teasing masquerading as theater." But as the gay community continues its wholesale abandonment of the radical sexual politics that once launched it toward liberation--embracing instead neocon ideals and heterosexist norms in its hunger for assimilation--I've come to see the Bailiwick nudie shows as critical instances of cultural resistance. In a nation that can barely acknowledge sexual pleasure let alone its myriad forms of expression (unless peddling soft drinks or gum, of course), Bailiwick insists on rubbing it in our faces. Even when the shows are dreadful--Jeff Stryker Does Hard Time pops to mind like a post-traumatic flashback--perhaps important work is being done to keep the atrophied heart of the sexual revolution pumping. And hey, if Grandma can drop 50 bucks to watch a chandelier crash and call it theater, I can spend half that for 90 minutes of a really nice ass.
So this year I'm gung ho for Bailiwick's sex shows, and Scott Lee Heckman's Nifty is as disarmingly subversive as any of them. About 75 minutes long, it features five performers--mostly in advanced states of undress--reading gay erotic stories pulled from the Nifty Archives, a Web site glutted with sexual fantasies dumped there by hordes of horny Netizens. The site is something of a raw Penthouse Forum, complete with sections on bestiality and incest, but it's run by volunteers and generates no income through advertising. Each week Heckman plans to assemble a different selection of stories, and if opening night's lineup was any indication, the material won't get too outlandish--nothing like my favorite Nifty titles: "Tales of a Young Mutant," "Cumming at the Boy Scout Meeting," and the now classic "Naked Tom Sawyer and His House Guests."
Heckman's production is bare-bones. The stage is empty, props and clothing are minimal, and the actors read from binders. Three big paper signs that say "Nifty," "Erotic," and "Stories" are taped up on black curtains at the back of the small studio stage. Heckman makes fun of his own cheaper-than-cheap aesthetic by plunking a music stand center stage and piping in strains of Vivaldi as the audience enters. It's clear we're in for "Anti-Masterpiece Theatre."
Confirming these suspicions is the wired Mark Holden Wells, who saunters up to the music stand in a sleeveless undershirt and tight jeans and announces the title of the first selection: "Confessions of a Piss Pig." Reading from his binder, he explains with laserlike intensity that the only thing that excites him sexually is urine. Ever since doing a photo shoot in which a private collector, Mr. X, paid him $20,000 to get peed on, he can't get enough of the stuff. Even saturating himself under Mr. X's "piss nozzle like a showerhead" didn't satisfy him. He needs all the pee in the universe.
This is the kind of erotic story that would be easy to ridicule, but lampooning the fetish would have given the audience an easy escape route, dismissing it as a contemptible perversion. Instead Heckman directs Wells to take the story at face value, walking down whatever sexual path the writer travels. At the same time, Wells doesn't become the character either, doesn't live through his experiences, for again that approach would have let the audience off the hook: this experience is happening to him, not to us. Like any good actor, Wells brings the story disturbingly and vibrantly to life, pitching it out into the house where it may titillate, amuse, or nauseate. In any event, we must grapple with it.
Heckman pushes the other actors--Allen Conkle, Bill Drew, Matt Joseph, and Brian Kirst--to perform their selections similarly. So whether we're hearing about a college student getting fucked by a linebacker in a bathroom stall, a rugby enthusiast working over his straight teammate in a seaside motel, or a 16-year-old boy blowing his 14-year-old brother, the stories fly off the stage as unfiltered as they are on a computer screen. Wisely, Heckman selects fantasies that very nearly sound true, making them all the more difficult to laugh off.
Nifty is one of those rare theater experiences that lies well beyond the rules of decorum. It's impossible to say how "good" or "bad" the show is, for all it attempts to do is allow the audience to confront cultural taboos viscerally. And at that it's undeniably successful.
Ice/Age, on the other hand, is another amateurish slice-of-life script of the sort that's marred the Pride Series in the past. Playwright Robert Canning wants to explore issues facing older gay men exiled to fossildom by the youth-mad gay world, but he fails to generate much dramatic urgency. Bringing four gay seniors together for their weekly card game, he lets them chat endlessly; one character takes five minutes to rhapsodize about his oversize penis. A whisper of conflict arises when 60-year-old Frank, who's been in a committed relationship with Wes for nearly three decades, confesses he's been seeing a 29-year-old professional hockey player. But the reactions this affair produces would hardly rattle a teacup in a cupboard. Performances that are generally stiff further inhibit any momentum from developing.
The production does introduce the remarkable Nathan Craig, a stand-up comedian making his acting debut. Bringing even the most hackneyed of Canning's lines to life, he remains locked on target, embodying effortless precision. If he gets the chance to tackle some meatier roles, perhaps we can truly watch a star being born.