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Theater Can Be Such a Drag
Poem: Three Limericks

2003-03-12

maha has a lively theatergoing audience, and hasn't earned it. There are too many theaters doing too much bad work, and somehow they all manage to scrape by. I started my career as a theater critic in this town, and after a few months of seeing plays that would shame a high school drama club, I became discouraged and just started to write about whatever I liked. As an example, instead of reviewing a community theater production of yet another Neil Simon play, I would write a long essay about the nearly lost tradition of the Grand Guignol. I purchased and reviewed soundtracks to obscure musicals -- obscure to Omaha, anyway, as, even before the film version of HEDWIG and the Angry Inch hit theaters, the production was a screaming Off-Broadway hit. But at the end of the last century in Omaha, HEDWIG was, at best, a rumor of good theater, whispered about by those who had been to New York and seen it. And few had. So when the opportunity came to leave Omaha and review theater in Minneapolis, a city with a lively drama scene and a marvelous collection of puppeteers, I leapt at the chance.

But now I have returned to Omaha, and to Omaha theater. This is the result of the Blue Barn Theatre, which, despite using the English spelling of "theater" (a pretension common to theatrical groups, and one that causes me black thoughts), is nonetheless a very good company. Years ago they produced my play Minstrel Show; Or, The Lynching of William Brown, which, despite having been denounced by state senator Ernie Chambers (a thrill for me; he is my favorite senator), enjoyed a sold-out run. The show has since traveled, without any help from me, around this country, like some runaway child with an all-you-can-ride pass from Greyhound. I occasionally get phone calls from Denver, or Pittsburgh, or Manhattan, and it's my play. Everything is well, it will inform me, with a cheery wish you were here.

Well, the Blue Barn is producing two of my plays in repertory in the fall, and I got a little sick of being a theater critic, and my friends still live here, and Omaha is inexpensive and oftentimes unexpectedly entertaining, and so I returned. With this return, I have begun attending Omaha plays again, and this has proved ill for both of us. I have a visceral reaction to bad theater. When I am aesthetically offended, my internal organs cramp up as though I had just been the subject of a particularly ferocious pummeling to my groin. I suck wind, my hands flail about, and I occasionally cry out. I open my palms before me, attempting to block out the vision of the dreadful play before me. Once, at a Minneapolis production called Dog Opera, I spent the entirety of the play's three-hour run miming suicide. It could be worse, though: I control my urge to catcall the cast, although there is a noble history of audiences hissing and catcalling. If this were kabuki, I would fully take advantage of the Japanese drama's tradition of flinging your seat cushion onto the stage when displeased.

This past Sunday, I was a particularly bad audience member. The play was mostly deserving of my misbehavior -- a little piffle of a musical called Breathe, produced by an Omaha theater company called SNAP, which specializes in gay-themed theater. I would not have attended were it not for the fact that a friend was in the cast. I made the mistake of sitting in the front row in a vague show of support for my friend. This meant that for the entirety of the first act I was within three feet of the actors as I made faces and stifled cries of agony. After the intermission, I wisely moved back a row.

In Minneapolis, when I was a critic, irate actors occasionally accused me of being homophobic, mostly because I authored ambivalent reviews to beloved, earnestly liberal plays such as The Laramie Project and savaged such dreck as Stop Kiss and Corpus Christi. I do not feel a need to defend myself against charges of homophobia, as being repulsed by bad theater is hardly enough of an act of hateration to warrant such a charge. I certainly offered up my share of positive reviews to gay-themed plays such as Mighty Real and The Invention of Love, so those who were crying foul were simply being selective.

No, my complaint is not with the subject matter of such plays. It is, instead, with their lapses in taste. Theater people are notorious for celebrating the mediocre -- it is why every drama kid in high school proudly parades around in a Cats or Les Miz hoodie, like some sort of Broadway-struck gangsta. And when you couple theater bad taste with liberal bad taste -- the sense that the function of theater is to provide audiences with remedial courses in caring and multiculturalism -- the awfulness of a play increases exponentially. Further, when you add into that mix gay bad taste, well, friends, you have created a swamp of dreadfulness that should simply be circled on the map, colored gray, and emblazoned with the words Here There be Monsters.

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I suspect some of the charges of homophobia came as a result of my daring to suggest that gay people might have bad taste, or that there might even be a tackiness specifically associated with gayness. But I have suffered an adulthood of teddy bears with T-shirts reading "I am Loved," rainbow flags, and fawning discussions of horrendous Broadway musicals. I have sat through gay men's choruses as they launched into tepid, ill-considered gospel number. (Most recently, this consisted of R. Kelly's "I Believe I Can Fly," which almost caused me to storm out in protest; at what point after videotaping yourself urinating into a weeping teenager's mouth does your music cease to be appropriate at public functions?) I have spent much of my adult life at gay bars, watching hirsute, overweight men in badly fitting buttless chaps get roundly rejected by muscular boys in silvern pants bedecked with pagers while the drone of bad techno fills the air. I can't honestly decide who was misbehaving the most. The hairy guy, for not having the common decency not to wear buttless chaps? Or the muscular boy, for dismissing another person merely because they didn't fit some idealized image of masculinity?

There is gay bad taste, and, because I have longstanding friendships with gays and lesbians, I have been subjected to it far too often to feel cowed into not pointing it out when I see it. If you can't count on a critic to honestly respond to lapses is taste, who can you count on? There is Jewish bad taste (gold stars of David; Agam), black bad taste (most of the soul music of the Nineties; Afro-sheen), Japanese bad taste (rape-fantasy anime; anything described as being "kawaii"), heavyset white secretary bad taste (Ziggy; anything involving kittens), and there is certainly gay bad taste. I don't use this fact as an excuse to dismiss gay-themed art out-of-hand. Quite to the contrary, I adore gay good taste. I am motivated by the spirit of camp, I am enthralled by performers such as Lipsynka, and my relationship with the Blue Barn is the direct result of one of their gay-themes plays. Specifically, a production called Reform School Timmy, a triple-X rated porn fantasia based on A Christmas Carol that remains the most outrageously funny thing I have ever seen in a theater. I befriended the playwright, Tim Siragusa (that's him in the photo, along with Timmy castmember Jill Anderson, at my 30th birthday party), and the play's cast -- they are the group of Omaha friends I missed badly enough to wish to leave Minneapolis.

This play, Breathe, was not Reform School Timmy. Instead, the play itself had no obvious structure, but was instead a series of loosely connected musical sketches of modern gay life, bridged by bland musical passages in which the cast joined hands in a circle and did tai chi. Too much of the play strove earnestly to make the point that gays and lesbians are so very, very normal, which might be true, but normalcy does not good theater make. A scene in which an elderly gay man and an elderly lesbian sat on a park bench and ogled younger folks was superficially cute -- but I hate cuteness, and the point of the scene seemed to be, "Look, we get old and sit on park benches just like you do." The results were like watching a two-hour musical about people getting into their minivan and heading toward the mall, and, rather than encourage new sympathy in me, it did the opposite. I hate minivans, and am not fond of the mall, and if the only point a play has to make is that its characters are ordinary, I will leave and go see a play about people who are extraordinary. Or, at the very least, I will sit in the audience and make horrible gurgling noises.

As a palate cleanser, I offer up these three limericks, all dealing with homsexuality. If I am going to be subjected to gay bad taste, at least let it be my own!

An Irish Affair

That massive old Scotsman McGinty
Was known to be rather minty
An Irish affair
Left folks in despair,
Asking, "Did he Fitzpatrick, or di'n't he?"

The Modern Clergy

A transsexual nun from Decatur
Required dozens of pills to sedatur
She continued to weep
As she slipped into sleep
That the Bishop had attempted to fellatur

To Mrs. Byrne, Who Called Me a Pantywaist

She thought me a repeat offender
Of a sin that was bound to offend her.
Indeed, she was quite wrong,
As I'm as straight as the day's long,--
So considerably less so in December.

Cheers!

© Max Sparber. Click for republication information.


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Posted by UkuleleKing at 5:22 p.m.

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