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Wooing by Proxy


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Circle Theatre

A writer, physically deformed but possessed of a rapier wit that hides an aching heart, secretly loves a young beauty; when the beloved falls for a handsome but inarticulate hunk, the writer pens love letters under the hunk's name, taking perverse pleasure in pleading another man's case while hiding his own feelings.

The plot is from Cyrano de Bergerac, of course, and it's a durable one. Edmond Rostand's 1897 comedy-drama about a poet-swordsman with an oversized nose is an ever-alluring fable, as proven by frequent revivals and film versions (including Steve Martin's Roxanne); the play's theme--the triumph of spiritual beauty over bodily ugliness--exerts a powerful pull on anyone who's ever felt unworthy of love.

As it turns out, the story's well suited to the age of AIDS, in which phone sex, voice-mail systems, and computer-network encounters allow for more imaginative sexuality even as physical contact has become more dangerous. Cyrano, who masks his courtship of the unattainable Roxane with the handsome visage of dim-witted Christian, is an effective hero for our time: a wounded, doomed lover wooing his inamorata with exquisitely phrased fantasies but never with the touch of flesh upon flesh.

Myron, LA playwright Michael Kearns's audacious, sometimes excessive, but quite moving variation on Rostand's verse classic, turns Cyrano into Myron, a black gay playwright dying of "it" (the plague is never named) who falls in love with Rex, the white "buddy" assigned him by a home-hospice program. Replacing Cyrano's ungainly nose is Myron's diseased arm, hidden from view by bandages but gruesomely described as a rotting, pus-oozing, useless club--an effective metaphor for the writer's block that Myron's disillusion with his own life, and with gay life in general, has created. Convinced of his unattractiveness and determined not to care for the white youth--his blackness as much as his illness contributes to a sense of alienation from the mainstream gay world--Myron is amused when Rex falls for Myron's black body-builder friend Chris. The desire is mutual; but where Chris is inclined to settle for a wham-bam quickie, Rex longs for verbal foreplay. So Chris enlists Myron to impersonate him in a steamy phone-sex session; then, when Chris leaves town, Myron continues the charade (and overcomes his writer's block) by writing passionate missives to Rex, signing them as Chris.

What makes this more than a gimmicky Rostand revision is Kearns's emotionally charged dialogue, sometimes preachy but always written from the gut. A former Goodman School of Drama student who made gay literary history in the 1970s as the supposed author of The Happy Hustler (a memoir in which Kearns posed as a male Xaviera Hollander), Kearns has carved a significant niche for himself as a writer-monologuist specializing in gay and AIDS-themed theater, but this is his first full-length play. His inexperience shows in some structural flaws, such as the way Chris all but disappears from the second act, and in Kearns's preference for tour-de-force speeches over character conflict. But the pungently personal tone of Kearns's one-man shows Intimacies and Rock, with which he's visited the Chicago area in the past few years, is strongly evident in Myron's uncompromising intensity. The script is prone to extreme and abrupt shifts in tone: passages of stinging humor, often bleak and cruel, crash into brutal confessionals about gay self-hate, substance addiction, and familial abuse; these in turn careen into candidly graphic, ecstatically erotic elegies. A striking example is Myron's first-act anecdote about the intimacy and power of fist fucking, in which he swerves from rapturous lyricism to blistering anguish, grappling with the nagging belief that his diseased arm is punishment for his sexual promiscuity.

Directing the script's local premiere with enormous sensitivity, Karen Skinner wisely doesn't try to smooth out Kearns's rough edges. Instead she and Eliot Wimbush, who plays Myron, use them to create a convincing portrait of a complex, psychologically disintegrated man struggling with extremes of pleasure and pain. With his sardonic smile and desperate, searching eyes, Wimbush doesn't play the bedridden Myron so much as inhabit him; his extraordinary performance combines unfussy technique with utter emotional commitment. Successfully breaking the rule that an actor shouldn't laugh at his character's jokes, Wimbush uses sudden barks of self-conscious laughter to make us see through Myron's brittle racial and sexual humor to the chaos beneath it, while he plays scenes that could be unbearably mawkish--such as Myron's long speech about discovering God in the camaraderie of Alcoholics Anonymous-- with absolute, irresistible honesty.

Solid support comes from Todd McConville as Rex, a role that tests an actor's willingness to really listen to his scene partner's dialogue (McConville passes with flying colors), and from Earl A. Fox as the ingratiating but annoying Christopher. But Myron rests mainly on Wimbush's shoulders--just as Cyrano does on whoever's playing the title role--and happily the actor's up to this mercurial, vivid character. More earthbound than the cosmically inclined Angels in America, Myron is nonetheless a similarly rich and turbulent piece of theater, and Wimbush's performance is a big part of the reason why.

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