Ever since one of the king's men stepped forward amid a sea of Elizabethan spectators and intoned Hamlet's famous "To be or not to be" soliloquy, playwrights have continually asked audience members to join them as silent partners in the commission of existential crime. To be sure, such probing into human truths has spawned the occasional modern classic, such as Samuel Beckett's Endgame, judging by the engrossing production of that play earlier this year at Germinal Stage Denver. More often than not, however, contemporary examinations of the human dilemma take on an increasingly one-sided tone: "Even though you've been nice enough to journey across town, procure a parking space and pay for the privilege of being entertained," today's self-possessed scribes tacitly acknowledge, "I'm going to spend the next hour or so describing every detail of my, or possibly someone else's, identity crisis." As two current productions by local playwrights indicate, such introspective exercises, while thought-provoking, can also evoke serious issues of abandonment in even the most loyal of theatergoers.
On the mostly plus side of the delicate author-audience balance is kryssi wyckoff martin's two-character confection My Other Personality Is a Drag Queen, a comedy-drama originally staged at The Shop in tandem with another martin one-act, Marco, which has since closed. ("I don't want it up if I can't get behind it 100 percent," said martin, who serves as the artistic director for genoa's mother presents, the theater company that produced the shows.) An ill-advised shift in focus midway through the unabashedly self-referential Drag Queen diminishes the overall impact of martin's thinly veiled confessional, but director Charles Wingerter and his actors nonetheless manage to provide a credible version of what martin refers to as "the glimpse we give of our true selves."
The play, which is a scaled-down version of one of martin's college projects, begins as a Drag Queen (Todd Anthony Black) and a Woman (martin) engage in a seated variation of the old mirror exercises popular with street mimes and novice acting students. As the strains of the Seventies song "Knowing Me, Knowing You" fade out, martin turns to the audience. Carefully placing her hands together, martin slowly pries them open, then quickly clamps them shut. A few minutes later she explains to us, "What I write and what you see aren't necessarily the same thing," demonstrating what renowned dramatist Edward Albee, when he was a visiting instructor at the University of Houston, once characterized as martin's covert writing style. Having uttered in one breath the show's underlying theme as well as its virtual disclaimer, a matter-of-fact martin and an outlandish Black proceed to tell us what it's like for a dutiful mother and a frustrated nightclub performer to inhabit the same body.
Wearing a bouffant wig and done up in an all-black ensemble consisting of a form-fitting mini-dress, high heels, formal-length white gloves and a feather boa, the ebullient Black is clearly the more, well, dominant personality for the first half of the evening. As he dances to a disco beat and purrs, "I am such a divine me," this Donna Summer wannabe seems well on his way to attaining lounge-singer bliss. It's a carefully shaded, sympathetically drawn and fully realized portrait that borders on--but never becomes--self-parody. By contrast, martin's character appears more comfortable describing the significant events of her past than reliving them. Her stories about the travails of childbirth and the challenges of motherhood, for example, are chock-full of details (including an obligatory mention of epidurals and stool softeners). And her simply stated observation--"You can have it all. You just have to alter your perception of what it all is"--is likely to strike a responsive chord in most working parents. But as martin continues to talk to us about the significance of the events that have changed her life, her intriguing better half nearly disappears into the background. In fact, for most of the second half of the drama, Black is allowed only the occasional comment as martin's humdrum saga continues to occupy center stage. As a result, the conflict between martin's two personalities is never permitted to develop in a way that affords the audience a fuller understanding of the playwright's quandary. In this case, martin's glimpse of her true self proves to be more tease than insight.
As unfulfilling as perhaps it's intended to be, though, martin's unresolved emotional conflict is much more preferable than the aimless psychobabble permeating playwright Jeremy Cole's 135-minute Traces of the Western Slopes. Now being presented at the Changing Scene, the labored production was made even longer at a recent performance when its start was delayed by 25 minutes in order to accommodate the arrival of six latecomers. (Due to construction, the theater's alley entrance is closed; patrons must enter through the front door on Champa Street, climb a long, steep staircase to the second floor, and walk across the entire stage to gain access to the seating area.) But even if director Pavlina Emily Morris could have ensured the production's timely start, her stalwart cast of actors is still saddled with the monumental task of making a night's entertainment out of Cole's bizarre ramblings and out-of-the-way literary references.
The first half of the play is riddled with inane dialogue such as "I'll have your tits in a blender for this," and "See if I don't put Ben-Gay in your Vagisil." Shortly after two vacationing girlfriends, Lily (Louniece SanFilipo) and Kate (Anna Hadzi), trade those priceless linguistic gems, a few meaningless barbs from Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? punctuate another discussion (sans any reference to either the play's title or to Albee himself). The play's seven characters ruminate about the snowstorm that's effectively forced them all to hole up in a bed-and-breakfast somewhere in the Sierra Madres. Then we're introduced to a gay couple, Alan (Darren Schroader) and Geoff (Karl deMarrais). Alan, so his art-critic boyfriend tells the assembled hotel guests, is a budding artist with a knack for drawing sketches of people who are experiencing emotional pain. "My portraits aren't art," Alan patiently explains, "they're therapy." By the time a matronly schoolteacher, Alice (Ruth Crowley), starts to tell us about the communication problems she's having with her husband, Ed (Ken Witt), most audience members are either uninterested, bored or confused.
Even so, we're obliged to become acquainted with the peculiar charms of the all-important character of Bill (Augie Truhn). Seems that this supposedly well-intentioned fellow, who spends much of his time skulking about the dark recesses of the inn, has the uncanny ability to purge people of their particular mental ailments. When Alan insists he doesn't want to confront the source of his aforementioned artistic talent, for example, a quietly intense Mr. Bill encourages the sensitive young man to remember the significant events of his childhood. After some coaching from the ubiquitous psycho-sleuth, Alan realizes that he draws portraits of others in order to more clearly define his own pain. (As we later discover, something horrible happened to Alan's parents when he was a lad.) A few minutes later, Act One mercifully ends.
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As Act Two begins, Alice tells us that "Ed's been known to read entire books in the toilet" while Lily murmurs that "Kate wears flannel shorts, and she's not even a lesbian." Meanwhile, we learn that Alan's been off somewhere reliving the agony of his parents' demise, Mr. Bill has taken to knitting while spilling his guts about his gay brother, and Alice has been plagued by the strange sounds of a disembodied voice speaking lines from the nonsense poem "Jabberwocky." Without so much as a decent crisis or even a mildly interesting climax or two, the three "couples" resolve whatever differences have separated them throughout the play, and Mr. Bill surprises everyone when he discloses that he's been a figment of the characters' collective imagination all along. Plus, he never had a brother, let alone one who was gay.
Given that Cole has enjoyed considerable local success as an actor, director and designer, it's hard to fathom his reasons for believing that this odd assortment of human wreckage would serve as promising material for a serious play. If anything, these off-the-wall characters should be slamming mental doors in an intellectual farce that, based on his previously demonstrated flair for wit and satire, Cole would likely fashion with precision. As it is, the current effort leaves you wondering if the characters on stage are the only ones with a few cobwebs in the attic.
My Other Personality Is a Drag Queen, presented by genoa's mother presents, through September 12 at The Shop, 416 East 20th Avenue, 303-831-6095.
Traces of the Western Slopes, through September 14 at the Changing Scene, 1527 1/2 Champa Street, 303-893-5775.