Saturday, January 5, 2019

BOLT upright: New company with LGBTQ focus debuts at District Theatre

Less than a year from conception to parturition,  Be Out Loud Theater Company wailed healthily out of the neonatal unit Friday night with its first production, Tennessee Williams' "...And Tell Sad Stories of the Death of Queens."

A slight but poignant and sometimes funny drama, the 1955 work takes its title punningly from a line in Shakespeare's "Richard II," with female monarchs substituted for the original's "kings." Directed by BOLT founder Michael Swinford, the production focuses on the ornamented anguish of an almost middle-aged gay transvestite in thrall to an illusory sense of what he deserves out of life. Candy Delaney, the main character's preferred identity, sees himself as person of business and a landlord hungering for both self-expression and respectability.

We have recently seen another local production of a little-known Williams play, also set in New Orleans, with a kind of miraculous twist that distinguishes it from "...Queens," but with a similar demimonde setting and a loquacious hero(-ine) menaced by sailors on shore leave. 

The BOLT production gives a lot of vitality to a play with more emblematic main characters. This makes the gathering storm of the first act easier to assess, as Candy tries to negotiate a "friendship" with a bluntly self-involved sailor seeking as much liquor and access to women as he can.
Karl puts the strong arm on the vulnerable Candy.
The obviousness of what's to come — a well-staged explosion of second-act violence — is made more interesting by Candy's wittiness and florid rhetoric.

This language would still be somewhat inert were it not for Lance Gray's vivid embodiment of it. Movement and gesture were essential components of the portrayal, and needed to look customary both in drag and in men's clothes. The wardrobe ("costume coordination" credit goes to Jeff Hamilton and Cheryl Harmon) had flair all around, including the deft costuming of the other two gay characters, Candy's tenants.

But the main ingredient was Gray's voice, supple in inflection, loaded with a blend of brassiness and veiled insinuation. The humor threaded throughout his near-monologues— tedious to his impatient sailor visitor, enthralling to the audience (even when he was offstage) — was sprightly and pointed every time it popped up in dialogue also loaded with recrimination and self-pity.

Chris Saunders, as the sailor Karl,  was forceful and laconic; glaring at Candy, he never failed to signal his roaring self-assertion. At times, it seemed the menacing aspect of his character peaked too early. On the other hand, to show Karl as not only resistant to Candy's charms but also hostile to everything Candy represents from the first is effective in pointing up the polarity of the two main characters. It certainly played well in building up the tension, even though it's blindingly clear where all the antagonism will lead.

That brutal second act is framed by Candy's caressing performance of "Poor Butterfly" and, in a tableau ending, a recorded excerpt from "Un bel di," Cio-cio San's immortal aria from "Madama Butterfly." Indeed, typical Puccini and Williams heroines are sisters under the skin: naive, clinging to a hopeless idealism, victimized. 

And, without the superficial niceties of courtship,  Karl is like a cruder Lieutenant Pinkerton — armored in a sense of entitlement, disdainful of his environment, set upon the fulfillment of his short-term desires. The first scene of Puccini's opera has the naval lieutenant indulging in his love of strong drink, just as Karl does in "...Queens" with much less restraint. 

Played with elfin mischievousness by Joe Barsanti and Christian Condra,  roommates Alvin and Jerry, despised by Candy, are the counterpart of Cio-cio San's relatives. They reject the hero(ine)'s cultural cross-dressing and are finally justified in their narrow perspective by the disastrous turn of events. That's when Jerry, joined in mocking laughter by Alvin, suggests that the three of them "tell sad stories of the death of queens."  That scene caps the implied community censure of Candy's haughty ambitions and queen-like pretenses. But it leaves intact Candy's right to seek the dignity that keeps eluding her, and that note is firmly sounded by this production.