Saturday, December 20, 2008

I have never been prouder

Actor wins part by a nose - Photo by Matt Cohen.

The late gay theater pioneer Terry Helbing holds the all-time record for conflict of interest. Not only was he the agent for my play Street Theater, he published it under his imprint of JH Press, produced it at the Mineshaft through his theater company Meridian, acted as one of the political activists in it, and was highly insulted when the gay newspaper he wrote for refused to allow him to review it. Today I am determined to challenge this record.

When I started TOSOS (The Other Side of Silence) in 1974, it was dedicated to "an honest and open exploration of the life experience and cultural sensibility of the GLBT community and to preserving and promoting our literary past in a determined effort to keep our theatrical heritage alive." At the time this was not all that easy. The new plays simply weren’t there. There were sad "coming out plays" and funny "coming out plays" and earnest "coming out plays"— and none were very entertaining. Marshall Mason once described them as "very very soft porn." We had to concentrate mostly on revivals.

Since Mark Finley, Barry Childs and I resurrected the company in 2000, it has been a different story. We have presented a long list of wonderful new scripts: Chris Weikel’s Penny Penniworth; Kathleen Warnock’s Rock The Line, Mark Finley’s adaptation of Young Stowaways in Space, Robert Patrick’s Hollywood at Sunset, David Bell’s Bernadette and the Butcher of Broadway to name but a few. Two of our company playwrights are well-deserved recipients of the Robert Chesley Award for Emerging Gay Playwrights, Kathleen Warnock in 2006 and Chris Weikel in 2007.

Which brings us to the TOSOS production of Chris Weikel’s Pig Tale directed by Mark Finley at Wings Theatre. Last week, walking past a book rack, I noticed a paperback blazoned with review quotes: "Fabulous," "Enthralling," "Captivating," "Novel and Surprising" — which more or less sums up my feelings about Pig Tale. It is an impossible premise, made totally believably by Chris Weikel. It has joy and wisdom and laughter and tears and an ending that...well, that you just will have to experience for yourself. As for the plot, you wouldn’t believe me if I told you. (Check out the review quotes below.)

Mark Finley’s direction, as usual, makes the complex seem so easy and simple. Tina Howe (the play’s fairy godmother) nailed it when she described Mark’s work as stylish but at the same time real. Mark’s ability to seamlessly mix these two supposedly incompatible elements is why no one else will ever direct the NYC production of any of my plays. With essentially no budget, Mark and the designers have made a small miracle. (Thank you Ray Klausen, Liza has no idea how lucky she is.)

The cast could not be better. Patrick Porter is a romantic leading man right out of the films of the 1930s-1940s. He will steal your heart as he slowly transforms from self-centeredness into the caring lover of the final curtain. But when it comes to transformations, Jesse May wins the Golden Carrot. He spends the play giving a porcine performance with charm enough to challenge the best of the Disney barnyard. Tim Dietrich slipped in under the wire to win the role away from about 30 other very good actors. He takes a pot high to an even higher new high with unerring comic instinct! Moe Bertran (forever Auntie Mayhem) plays a whole parade of characters, lead off by the sweet and demure and splendid Mother Truth.

Which brings us to the person I always consider essential to a successful production. Back when I still directed, Billy Blackwell was my stage manager. He anticipated what I wanted before I even knew I wanted it. He died and I stopped directing. Jennifer Marie Russo is an even better stage manager. Perhaps the best I have ever encountered. To read her daily notes to the company is to know the true purpose of poetry! Her cheery demeanor and technical competence has guided this production through unreliable lights, bleeding actors and flying feet.

Pig Tale was first performed as a reading earlier this year as part of the TOSOS Robert Chesley/Jane Chambers Playwright Project. I have never particularly liked readings, I tend to hopefully count the remaining pages. But thanks to Kathleen Warnock and Mark Finley (and the Dramatists Guild Fund), this year’s Chesley/Chambers series provided some of the most exciting theater I have seen in years. The roles that Patrick Porter and Tim Dietrich now play, were read by TOSOS company members Steven (Confessions of a Mormon Boy) Fales and Kevin (America’s oldest living juvenile) Held. Both were wonderful but ultimately not available.

Finally, I personally would like to thank Jeffery Corrick and the people of Wings for inviting TOSOS to participate in their Gay Play Series. They have been very generous with their help. But there are dark clouds ahead for them. After twenty-two years of presenting new plays and musicals by American writers and composers, they are in danger of being forced out of their space. One more OOB venue might bite the dust. It would be wonderful if the GLBT community would rally round to save this important institution, but having dedicated fifty years to this community, I tend to suspect it is very unlikely.

It is not a conflict of interest to say that Pig Tale is what TOSOS is all about. What TOSOS was in fact created for. And that answers the question I get almost daily since I first started TOSOS. This is why there needs to be "gay theater." I doubt Pig Tale could have been presented with any more honesty and integrity than TOSOS has provided. The people and events and productions of TOSOS are why I do what I do. They are in fact what I am all about. Mark Finley’s production of Chris Weikel’s Pig Tale and the TOSOS family and friends validates me. And my life. And like I say at the top of this post, I have never been prouder.
NY Blade’s Top 10 - 2008 / NY Theatre.com "Pick of the Week"

Quotes from the reviews:
"Let's face it: Men are pigs - and frankly, some of us have dated more than our fair share of oinkers. But none of us has been as bad off as poor Johnny Lovejoy when his long-term trick, Dave, transforms into an honest-to-goodness pig in Chris Weikel's charming queer confection Pig Tale; an Urban Faerie Story. Whether it's the snout or Dave's unseemly habit of rooting through the garbage, one fact is clear: The boy is swine....With witty banter, Weikel turns the notion of happily ever after on its well-worn head, injecting camp and fetish gags (furries, anyone?) into Pig Tale's fractured fairy-tale format....Weikel creates an engaging metaphor for modern relationships as Dave transforms from sexual object into human romantic partner." Paul Menard, Back Stage

"Pig Tale...is a very smart, witty, and funny play...Chris Weikel wrote a really sweet and honest play. His characters are fully developed and engaging. The story is also refreshing and it doesn't fall into the clich├ęs that gay-themed often do. Mark Finley has done a stellar job directing this piece. The staging feels very organic. I also thought that the set was really great. Ray Klausen has a great eye for detail...Patrick Porter is terrific as Johnny...Jesse May is amazing as Dave...Tim Dietrich is hysterical as Kyle...Moe Bertran is extremely entertaining in his many parts...(Pig Tale)...is definitely worth the trip to the Wings Theater to see." Roger Nasser, nytheatre.com (http://www.nytheatre.com/)

"...Weikel subtitles his work "an Urban Faerie Story." Call it a sweet love story, as well, which deserves a place beside such seasonal fantasies as Hansel and Gretel and The Nutcracker...Pig Tale will warm your heart." - Bruce-Michael Gelbert - Q OnStage.com (http://www.qonstage.com/)

[Wings Theatre Company presents the TOSOS production of Chris Weikel’s Pig Tale, directed by Mark Finley. Playing December 5 to January 3; Mon-Thur-Fri-Sat at 8 pm, Sun at 3:30 pm (No performances Christmas Day or New Year's Day) at Wings Theatre, 154 Christopher Street in the Archive Building. Tickets: $20 (students & seniors: $16). Reservations: 212-627-2961.]