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SOME QUEERS

Chicago Stage Company

at Sheffield's School Street Cafe

DEL & DAVE IN REHEARSAL FOR THE APOCALYPSE

Remains Theatre

A dozen years ago Charles Busch, who had yet to write the hilarious travesties Vampire Lesbians of Sodom and Psycho Beach Party, brought his Hollywood Confidential to the Victory Gardens Studio Theatre. Sadly, he made only a small splash; he was ahead of his time and our press had no desire to speed things up. By default I became his local champion; in 1982 I asked Busch to return to Chicago for a gay arts festival with a second show, which fared better. And by the end of the 80s New York had pronounced Busch to be Charles Ludlam's witty successor.

That same kind of promise is present now in another young gay actor and writer, Kert Hoogstraat. In the 95 well-wrought minutes of Some Queers, which he wrote and performs, he creates ten vibrant portraits of gay men, trenchantly observed in each detail and dramatized down to the cell. The malleable Hoogstraat paints his gallery in voice, gesture, expression, and movement--this is as three-dimensional as theater gets. And as life seldom does. Using a minimum of props and costumes, Hoogstraat embodies several dogged stereotypes but makes them as varied and vigorously human as John Leguizamo's Hispanics in Spic-O-Rama.

The characters--shrewdly arranged in Daniel J. Cunningham's staging, which plays up the contrasts--range from 12-year-old Paul, whose infatuation with TV's hairy-chested Starsky convinces his homophobic father that the boy may become a cop after all, to the Activist, a professional protester who compulsively shows up for any cause ("Love me, love my marches"). It's his way of embarrassing his lover who's still in the closet.

In the harrowing "Bashing," Hoogstraat enacts a man's tortured recollection of the night his lover of 14 years was mutilated and murdered by knife- and bat-wielding antigay thugs; the graphic detail is balanced by the lover's complex reactions to the horror, a mixture of survivor guilt, battle fatigue, and rage at his own helplessness. Interestingly, anger at the uncaught killers is less apparent.

Hoogstraat is equally skilled at digging humor from his characters. The delightfully forthright Tony, who's joined a support group where the other gays complain about boyfriends, just wants to know how to get one. What's the point of coming out, Tony laments, if there's no one to take him in? In "Couple" a jaded veteran of an eight-year relationship offers fatuous advice to a younger couple, then subverts it with his own deliciously ambivalent attitude toward his lover. (Hilariously he describes their "celebration of commitment": their delight that everyone on the A list showed up, their revulsion at the dirty chairs they'd rented--each had to be quickly scoured or they'd have died of embarrassment.) In "Operator" a young man who gives good--and kinky--phone sex breaks from the fantasy mongering to dish reality with a friend; what results is a rampaging, bravura gossipfest that ends with the operator screaming at his friend to be tested for AIDS.

The most chilling and controversial creation, "The Hunter," is a complete triumph of writing. In it Hoogstraat depicts an angry, lethal gay man who seethes with contempt for his tricks (he says they whine and throw blame in all directions because "no one has seen their true potential"). He despises them most because they won't risk his rejection--because they don't value their lives enough to take precautions, the Hunter icily maintains that they let him infect them with HIV.

Most moving is the upbeat "Gretta," where Hoogstraat plays a lonely, elderly drag queen who befriends young gays by listening to their problems and distributing condoms. (You don't attend 14 funerals in seven months and not do something, he says.) Gretta meets Matthew, a beautiful 22-year-old who offers him some late-blooming love; for Gretta the gift is too perfect to accept, a refusal he'll taste forever when he loses Matthew. But later, in the most wonderfully unexpected way, he gets Matthew back again. In this one marvelous if sentimental scene (which ends with an apotheosis worthy of Tennessee Williams), Hoogstraat fuses two gay extremes in a celebration of love and loss.

Linking the monologues (some of which go on too long) is a series of "dreamscapes" that eloquently chart the changes of a lonely gay youth growing up in a town of 700, awaiting the stories (the monologues themselves) that will explain him to himself and to the world. He feels less alone as he reads of famous gays like Oscar Wilde and learns about the berdaches, homosexuals honored in Indian tribes--treasured by their clans for their ability to fuse the sexes in their vision quests. In later dreamscapes he searches for a love that will solve the puzzle he's become to himself. Finally the stories come full circle as, finding love, he learns that "a man can hold eternity in a joined hand."

Another verbal showcase plays late-night weekends at Remains Theatre--the creepily named Del & Dave in Rehearsal for the Apocalypse (do they know something we don't?). The most accurate part of the title is "in rehearsal." Mostly improv, the show is often as self-indulgent as it is brilliant: in a 55-minute meeting of the minds, Second City veterans Del Close and David Pasquesi manage to entertain without ever being caught in the act.

This two-man talkfest is loosely focused on the thought that doomsday may occur on July 15, 1995, or at the turn of the millennium or in 2012 (when the Mayan calendar runs out). Or maybe it's already happened but in the future--so we're heading for it like passengers on a people mover going into a terminal about to blow up.

Maybe comedy today requires the urgency of a cataclysm.

The loose-to-sloppy improv format offers a flexible forum for these eclectic players. The mentally peripatetic Close, among other excursions, defends himself against being indexed in Bob Woodward's Wired as "Close, Del: See Heroin" by saying he only did speed or whatever else was around. He describes the feelings of watching his own colon during an operation: "I'm up my own ass!" He wonders why we never see Clarence Thomas's wife--is she a prop? In a bit of philosophy he speculates that our problems are caused by the ghosts of dinosaurs, furious at how we're wasting their corpses.

There's a ton of cultural grist for Close's mill--a proposed Japanese toy in which a crucifix transforms into a warrior; the saga of "Doorknob Mary," who'd pilfer this hardware from Old Town homes and sell it back to the owners; his three suicide attempts, "each of them successful"; the intriguing idea that the extinction of the species makes reincarnation more difficult by reducing the number of available slots. Finally, Close offers an anecdote about meeting Tennessee Williams in the Goodman Theatre lobby, when a cockroach crawled out of the actor's clothes and landed on a rich lady who scattered a plate of canapes. Much delighted, Tennessee said, "I like that. That had style!"

Pasquesi's vaguely nihilistic contributions are mostly curmudgeonly put-ons. He compares shopping to stalking game, praises fur-coat wearers for socking it to animal-rights activists, then professes sympathy for the carnage wreaked on vegetables. It's impossible to rip his amorphous remarks--"Hatred shouldn't be squandered," "There is no objective reality," "There's no difference between me and a maggot"--out of context because they don't have any in the first place. Mostly Pasquesi sounds like a philosophy major getting mopily solipsistic, mistaking cynicism for revelation.

In one bit the two actually work together, in a spoof of the criminal justice system. On the night I was there it went nowhere.

At times Del and Dave seem laid back to the point of stasis; the show needed jump starts it never got. But what it most requires, and doesn't have, is a comic, even vaudevillian chemistry between the two players.

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

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