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Stranded In The Shallows

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The Way I Wear My Hat

Martini Productions/Seanachai Theatre Company

at the Theatre Building

The Dead Lesbian

Bailiwick Repertory

By Carol Burbank

One of the greatest curses of contemporary drama is the dumbing-down of theatrical storytelling. In a culture saturated with sitcoms, identity politics, and sound bites, it's hard to write multifaceted plays that derive their power from many sources--not simply the situation or the main character's identity or the secrets revealed in a moment of (melo)dramatic intensity.

Sometimes I think gay and lesbian theater is especially prone to oversimplified writing, primarily because a queer identity in itself is taken to be a theatrical force. Unfortunately, it ain't necessarily so--at least in Elizabeth Ward's The Dead Lesbian and Ann Noble's The Way I Wear My Hat, two offerings that celebrate Lesbian & Gay Pride Month.

The Way I Wear My Hat, coproduced by Seanachai Theatre and Martini Productions, is the more successful of the two thanks to the excellent ensemble, directed by Mary Booker. Noble's play tells the story of hapless Sarah, an unhappy woman who falls in love with a female painter the month before she's scheduled to marry a successful businessman. In many ways, it's the usual coming-out success story: girl wants to be good and marry boy, girl meets girl, girl panics and insults her lesbian lover, girl dumps boy, girl gets girl. Noble has superimposed a typical coming-out tale on the heterosexual marital-panic comedy genre, complete with the requisite drunk, pushy mother, and adulterous brother-in-law.

Noble has created interesting supporting characters and structured her play in functional, entertaining vignettes that show the different worlds Sarah moves through. But the love affair at the play's center seems more sisterly than sexual, and it's hard to believe any of the characters in the more intimate or emotional scenes. The problem seems to be that, as the play is written, Sarah is little more than a Closeted Lesbian. In the boy-meets-girl genre, it isn't enough that the characters are heterosexual. A lesbian sexual orientation isn't enough either.

Sarah's character just isn't very specific. She wears black, she's "intense," she's an observer, she has a grim sense of humor, she's anxious to please. In many ways, she's a generic lesbian literary outsider (played by India Whiteside with a morose, stressed-out eagerness). As a result, her coming out isn't in itself very interesting; she doesn't seem remarkable enough to justify the risk her new lover takes, bringing out a heterosexual about to be married. As written, their love isn't very challenging or interesting, only sweet and a little brave. Alexa Wolkoff plays the painter, Alice, with a loving directness that's more platonic than passionate. Wolkoff has a nice energy, but there isn't even much intimacy between the two women during their one quarrel, when their intensity seems forced and unearned.

Noble shows promise as a writer. She makes the supporting roles juicy enough to be worth playing. Stand-out performances are given by Rachel Bradley as a cynical art-gallery owner, by Coby Goss as a closeted coworker who's set up with the drunkard, and by Kirsten Daurelio, who plays the lush guilelessly. Noble clearly designed the play's relationships to support and illuminate Sarah and Alice's struggle, and if their relationship had formed a clearer, deeper center, this would have made an excellent romantic comedy.

Elizabeth Ward's black comedy The Dead Lesbian has some of the same problems as The Way I Wear My Hat, but Ward lacks Noble's narrative skill. Building on the heterosexual sex-and-suspense television genre so popular now, she tells a tale of postdebauch death panic. Two women wake up in a strange apartment to find that their playmate in a drunken menage a trois the night before has died. The unlikely plot draws a nurse and a private detective into the mess. Unfortunately, the secrets and surprises revealed as a result of the crisis were so muddled that in the end I wasn't even sure what they were, or if anyone was guilty of any crime beyond general postcoital callousness.

This Bailiwick production, which Ward also directed, would probably have benefited from more outside input (Serena Harrigan codirected). The story is confusing, and though the cast work gamely to fill in the gaps with sexual energy, the characters express such narcissistic and uneven lust that the comedy never takes hold. The dead young woman, offstage in the den, is alternately feared and ogled: she makes her houseguests uncomfortable but never comes across as real, even in the hyped-up scenes in which the two hungover survivors accuse each other of murder and (ironically) infidelity.

The fact that they're all lesbians trapped in a dead woman's apartment isn't titillating enough to justify the plot gaps. Their stereotyped confessions, flirtations, and panic attacks are haphazard and voyeuristic--and particularly ghoulish when we're reminded of the dead woman in the next room. Although there were some goofy community in-jokes that might have been entertaining in the context of a clearer story or before a larger audience, as it stands the play is a puzzle with too many pieces missing to bother solving it.

The challenge of gay and lesbian theater is to tell stories that are neglected or repressed in a homophobic media culture that encourages oversimplification of sexuality and relationships in general. The best place to start is to tell a clear story about people who are interesting not because they're queer but because they're alive and complicated and negotiating both the queer and straight worlds. In a society that stigmatizes and appropriates queer culture as freakish and monolithic, diversity and depth are the best theatrical revenge.

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