A Festival of Plays, for Pride Week in Boston
Charlotte Meehan, taking the stage at the Boston Center for the Arts in the middle of June, began her curtain speech for the summer festival “Doubles, Demons, and Dreamers: a live art festival” by establishing the ancestry of her company, Sleeping Weazel. Meehan traced Weazel’s artistic inheritance to the French symbolist poets, via the continental branch of their family tree that extends through the dadaists and surrealists. This isn’t the usual front matter theatrical performance receives, but it is refreshing to hear a statement of principles in place of an overplayed joke about emergency exits or cellular phones.
“Doubles, Demons, and Dreamers” was a festival for Pride week (June 12–June 21)—the plaza in front of the Boston Center for the Arts glittered with purple Christmas lights, just approved after a community petition, and Sleeping Weazel’s glossy promotional materials had rainbow flags on them. But what elevated the occasion, even from its stated intention, was the excellence of the performances and the principled delicacy with which the content was arranged. Sleeping Weazel has a goofy name. It is also the most serious show in town, with all the fine procedural standards of a good repertory company trained (and this is always radical) on truly artistic objectives.
Johnny Blazes, first on the bill, sauntered out with balloon breasts, blond wig, sequined red-white-and-blue getup, and fishnets to a corny recorded band. The act began the festival with a drag floor show, adult-style comedy, and cabaret-style renditions of favorites belted out, lovingly dislocated from their musicals. This triple-threat of highly theatrical, artificial forms left the queen at the center more naked than most performers. This is paradoxical, but typical: garish prosthetics expose a struggle with self, and Blazes confessed (as if telling a joke) internal conflict that turned on the dislocation from both heteronormative expectations and the equally artificial norms of LGBT identity. Johnny Blazes is the sample case par excellence, capable of giving a lap dance, then a pithy address on how sex performs on and distorts the precarious institution of the chosen family, without missing a beat or smudging lipstick. A chosen family, as Blazes wryly chuckled between jokes about whom one’s “daddy” might be, is sometimes the only family available. The performance was not blubbery, but made plain that unconditional love is worth missing, that the rupture from the family is painful and real. The shadow of Pride is of course shame; the festival is always a kind of exorcism.
Yet artists always select their family—lineage and community. Connecting experimental drama, drag, the claimed ancestry of the French symbolists, Pride week in Boston’s South End: none of this was coincidental or exploitative marketing on Meehan’s part. Her decisions were principled and formal—truly based on a wrestle with ideas, and not cosmetically celebratory. Pride was not a haphazard “theme” and the pieces featured were not topically related or propagandist: even Johnny Blazes turned cabaret back on the spectacle of Pride Week with a keen eye for its bitter ironies. Though being in the closet is no walk in the park, Blazes suggested (while either winking or grimacing) that queens face crude, generalized expectations from the fantasy as well. “Doubles, Demons, and Dreamers” was a festival for Pride because Meehan and company showed themselves capable of recognizing the celebration in a cluster of formal notions: Pride wasn’t used as an excuse for a flight of plays about gay identity any more than human identity. But the occasion became a kind of vigil, establishing resonance between the celebration of Pride and a celebration of the spiritual progress and individuation that art sometimes demands and represents. Johnny Blazes finished with a striptease sans lust, performed during a moving rendition of “Maybe This Time.” Undressed, the body onstage, its incredible vocal chords shaking the air, suddenly wasn’t sexual—it was human, imperfect, and striking.
Connecting experimental drama, drag, the claimed ancestry of the French symbolists, Pride week in Boston’s South End: none of this was coincidental or exploitative marketing on Meehan’s part. Her decisions were principled and formal—truly based on a wrestle with ideas, and not cosmetically celebratory.
Ugmo and Eenie Go Down the Ruski Hole by Kenneth Prestininzi followed the intermission, and it is perhaps a play about two gay men. But to describe it accurately, one must say it is a portrait of the artist as a young psychopath, shading with the burden of madness to unlikely love in a 3 A.M. Pinteresque fantasia. The play is moving, disturbing, genuinely dramatic, and the performances (Leicester Langdon as Ugmo: crazy, perhaps with genius; Alston Brown as the straight man Eenie: a sane, sensible drag queen and military enlister) were emotionally athletic and strong. Langdon and Brown should have the opportunity to do more important work. Prestininzi’s play was graced with a hallmark of fine theater: a situation that looked like nonsense or a dream was gradually transformed into a truer kind of reality. The encounter between Ugmo and Eenie is unbelievable, weird, romantic, believable, funny, and wrenching. It is both a tortured love story and the classic conflict of modernism: the artist encounters the citizen; both go nuts. I would challenge Prestininzi only on certain minutiae in Ugmo’s speeches on art (“idea” should perhaps be “inspiration” or some more personalized term, etc.). Otherwise, he presents one of the clearest, least-cluttered representations of the creative mind this side of Beckett—and with Beckett constantly in view. Recalling Johnny Blazes, sex imposes complications on any existential crisis. To take another turn, and one that might have inspired Prestininzi’s play even if it didn’t: it is (well, in fairness to Beckett’s genius, possibly) irreverent, but tantalizing as fetish, to picture Vladimir and Estragon as young men of more fresh confusion, and speculate that they were somehow lovers. There is more to say about this piece: it should be remounted.
Yet what could be more courageous, after such a play, than to begin the second week of the festival with something utterly clean, set in a childlike, daylight world, and celebrating the family? Beth Nixon’s Lava Fossil was not “difficult” art. Nixon is a monologist, and creates a space of loving-kindness and rich affection studded with irreverent jokes and bittersweet moments. It is like the platonic ideal of a rainy Sunday in suburban America, equally indebted to morning cartoons and spiked with intellectual quirks. Bits of Nixon’s father’s papers on oceanography drifted into her microcosmic system, which focused on the process of mourning his death.
Nixon’s storytelling (with childlike props: papier-mâché, magic marker drawings, plastic toys in vintage suitcases, even a baking-soda volcano!) has something of the atmosphere of a show in the attic or the backyard for the benefit of neighborhood kids. Her matter is adult, but she plays with the signifiers of innocence, hominess, and accessibility: Nixon is fixed on the role of un-difficult art in communicating and building love, and her plainspoken presentation is conversational without condescension. Lava Fossil was undeniably charming—and a definite foil to Adara Meyers’ relentlessly paced, nonlinear drama, Talk To At Me, which followed in the second half of the program. Nixon depends on love as a secure structure; her temptation is the rationalist sentimentality of a progressive kindergarten. She eschews the sublime, but produces a great deal of resonant empathy, Norman Rockwellish pangs for the lost, family-friendly world of the late twentieth century, where people are as happy and good (and perhaps as abstracted) as cartoon dinosaurs. Nixon’s is a theater that produces emotion with great economy and honest, gamine elegance—the way a kid’s drawing represents his world with a kind of elegance. Pain and guilt, in Lava Fossil, are atmospheric elements merely: external consequences of sensible atheist pragmatism when faced with the horror of death.
Meyers’ world, by contrast, is full of human rodents: dirty and culpable, even in caricature. If this is a cartoon, it is Ren & Stimpy; a character called Rat (James Barton) is no less disgusting for his filthy human features peeking over a plastic snout. If he were a real rat, he would at least be less lascivious with human women, and less delighted to explode the technicolor mad tea party that he breaks up for the rest of the cast (Margarita Martinez, Veronica Wiseman, Kervin Germain, and Cesar Muñoz—four fine actors in eerie automaton mode) as the play commences. The characters are gratingly individual, disconnected; they almost scream their opening lines, and never face one another in the breathless scene that begins the play in garish colors and unnatural movement (with thanks to direction by Shana Gozansky). Simple affection is outside the emotional vocabulary of Meyers’ characters, who explode in mad sexually-debased romance at their full extension, and bottom out on directionless ejaculations of small talk and barely directed general advice, laced with condescension, product placement, and the special faculty of casting sociopolitical conditions in private psychodrama. This sometimes results in confrontation, by turns steamy and violent, but is it communication? Meyers has had a vision of the precarious scaffolding that human relationships are built on in the post-capitalist era of the liberated individual, his fast media access, and his personal computers. Naturally, the center will not hold. Yet the genius of “Doubles, Demons, and Dreamers” lies in a perfect use of juxtaposition: the shock and apathy of the aptly titled Talk To At Me is highlighted by the shadow of Nixon’s poignant, secure perspective, where communication and human love are contested only by death, but lie as it were in the earth, secure as the fossil record.
Sublime experiences might be possible for Meyers’ characters (they certainly fall violently into and out of lust and codependence) but the pace of realization shows them prey to violent self-deception. How authentic is Maggie’s (Margarita Martinez) empowerment and reinvention, the most complete arc and most-discussed transformation in the play? (Germain and Muñoz grow interlinked rats’ tails, but this is somehow less notable than Maggie’s change into, first, a hyper-sexualized attitude and, later, a black dress.) The only new horizon for the liberated woman, her liberated sex, seems to be the freedom to rummage through a landscape of trash in relative peace and isolation. So it is a disturbing play—unfocused, perhaps, on purpose—and we are left with the image of space in high entropy: piles of crumpled paper, overturned furniture, ghosts of garish neon outfits, and motorboat speech clinging to the empty stage and the detritus of props. As the play ends, almost silently while a distant radio talk show drifts in the air, a character named only “Man 1” (Germain) sits in the rubble, and slowly, slowly opens his eyes. What kind of a world does he see, after the drama fades with its own vanity, on waking? I believe some parallel vision has been Meyers’. It will be of interest, to whoever still follows the big drama of artists’ development, to see if this playwright’s vision of the boredom and horror of “rodent life and modern love” will be followed by a new revelation. Some audience awaits the play that will include all of this shrewdly rendered chaos, expertly folded into synthesis and genuine transformation. Meyers has not yet reached this point, but she has something in her, and that play may come. What we are after is no short order: in fact, it is the germ of that nearly-psychotic quest of the artist, so strikingly portrayed by Leicester Langdon as Ugmo in the festival the week before.
“Doubles, Demons, and Dreamers” was a reminder—wrought entirely in the anti-didactic language of theater, juxtaposition—that this artist’s quest is not unrelated to the mission of the LGBT community: to transform the chaos of rebellion, sex, and individuation into something as innocuous and crucial to human life as the family. The first is a state of affairs, often caught up with self-deception. The other, one hopes with Beth Nixon, is somehow timeless. Queer identity is not universal, but Sleeping Weazel helped to show that the themes of Pride touch universals. Artists, too, must sometimes choose their ancestors, traditions, and families. And history is a dream from which we are (all of us) trying to awake.