Monday, November 17, 2008

Reverend’s Reviews: The Play is Gay in LA

Center Theatre Group, Los Angeles’ premiere company, is currently the gayest show in town! Through mid-December, CTG’s three stages — the Ahmanson, Mark Taper Forum and Kirk Douglas Theatre — are performing works of considerable GLBT interest.

The most high profile of these is the LA premiere of the Tony Award-winning musical Spring Awakening (now through December 7). Theatre lovers on “the left coast” are always curious to know whether what plays well in NYC will play as well here. Fortunately, Spring Awakening more than fulfilled my expectations, having only heard the Duncan Sheik/Steven Sater score on CDprior.

This partially contemporized adaptation of Franz Wedekind’s 19th century play about hormone-besieged teens (some of them homosexual) striving to survive the transition to adulthood is a definite crowd-pleaser … especially when the crowd is under 30. It resonated with me, however, both as a former teenager and as a priest who worked closely with teenagers while in parish ministry. Indeed, the frank, confessional spirit of Spring Awakening brought back memories of our high school retreats, where teens openly shared their struggles with parental authority, drugs and alcohol, sexuality, faith and religion, and, on occasion, suicidal temptations.

Michael Mayer’s staging, Christine Jones’ set, Kevin Adams’ lighting and the performances of the talented LA cast all deserve commendation. I wasn’t as impressed by Bill T. Jones’ choreography, which primarily consists of synchronized head-bopping and trampoline-less bouncing. Arm and hand gestures are often weird and/or obvious, though perhaps intentionally derived from teen-fave Justin Timberlake and his ilk. Despite this criticism, Spring Awakening is a must-see, both for its theatricality and its honest insight into teenagers’ lives.

Now playing on the Mark Taper stage through December 17 is the US premiere of The School of Night, by British playwright Peter Whelan. A historical drama based on equal parts fact and speculation about 16th-century author and “sexual renegade” Christopher "Kit" Marlowe, it suffers from an insufficient first half but rebounds strongly in Act Two.

Anyone who isn’t well-versed in English history, or who hasn’t at least seen the Cate Blanchett film Elizabeth: The Golden Age, will likely be baffled by Act One. The action takes place at the estate of Sir Thomas Walsingham (well played by Adrian LaTourelle), where Marlowe (the excellent Gregory Wooddell), Sir Walter Raleigh (a hammy Henri Lubatti) and a young actor, Tom Stone (a very good John Sloan) -- who will become the great William Shakespeare -- have been recruited for an evening’s entertainment.

Some of these figures were members of the secretive “School of Night,” which was composed of writers, scientists, philosophers and other intellectuals who regularly questioned such accepted notions as God’s existence and Queen Elizabeth’s monarchy. Some of them also may have been spies for the self-professed Virgin Queen’s enemies. Subsequently, the School of Night and its members were under suspicion by the Queen’s court.

Whelan and director Bill Alexander try to explain all this in as theatrical and entertaining a way possible, but the political intrigue and the numerous characters are too complex to adequately detail in 75 minutes. Act Two doesn’t get off to a promising start either, opening with an extraneous, insufferably long Commedia dell’Arte sequence that showcases Rosalinda Benotti, an Italian actress of Moorish descent, played poorly by Tymberlee Chanel. When Chanel’s accent isn’t swinging wildly between pseudo-Italian, British, Irish and no accent at all, the actress appears simply out of her element.

But then, finally, the dramatic focus turns to Marlowe and his relationship with Stone/Shakespeare and The School of Night finally comes to life. As Marlowe is implicated in a plot against the Queen and Stone cribs ideas for his own future plays from him, Marlowe becomes a more integrated, honest man. His homosexuality, rather than leading to his downfall, becomes a source of strength. It also inspires Stone to profess his love for Marlowe, which likely didn’t happen in real life.

Marlowe also gets a magnificent monologue in the middle of Act Two about the true meaning of liberty and what constitutes a healthy nation/society that got a spontaneous ovation from the audience during the performance I saw. Wooddell delivered it beautifully. It, in and of itself, is reason to recommend The School of Night.

Finally, Center Theatre Group is presenting the West Coast premiere of Douglas Carter Beane’s acclaimed comedy The Little Dog Laughed, which will run at the Kirk Douglas Theatre November 23 to December 21.

Julie White will reprise her Tony Award-winning performance as a Hollywood agent who goes into hilarious overdrive when her star client — a closeted gay actor — falls in love with a male hustler. As it hasn’t yet opened I haven’t seen it, but I expect The Little Dog Laughed will be another reason for GLBT theatergoers to flock to the CTG’s current productions.

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.

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