As actors in the theater of postindustrial economy, we’re all called upon to do a little song and dance to conceal the roots of our collective pathos. We’re all former child stars bludgeoned by the ugly reality of celebrity culture and reduced at times to babbling rants about how much we hate our jobs and wondering how we got here. But few of us have the breathtaking agility, magnificent diction, and flair for the bizarre that Sean Sullivan displays in Baby Redboots’ Revenge (P.S. 122).
The piece was written for Sullivan by former circus performer Phillip-Dimitri Galas, who died of AIDS in 1986. As Baby Fourstrings, Sullivan tells the story of a showbiz prodigy who is condemned by a voodoo curse to waste his creative peak playing bass for a polka band in Southern California. While the text covers a remarkable panorama of characters, from Isadora Duncan to the fictional Icarus Mahoney— who “walked a tightrope made of dental floss strung from Lake Shasta to Tijuana”— Sullivan’s plasticity as a performer is the show’s true strength.
Apart from Redboots‘s not-so-subtly imbedded critique of performance itself, some of its contextual underpinnings can seem dated. The “fringe” feel of American avant-gardists discovering the continuity between trailer-park culture, Sunset Boulevard, and voodoo has long since dissipated, and the trope of the humiliating audition is a bit tired. But these are the admonitions of a critic, who “makes a profession out of enjoying nothing,” as Galas writes. Baby Redboots’ Revenge succeeds in sending up everything from the shimmy to Shakespeare, and your inner child star will be better for the experience. —Ed Morales
The Usual Suspect
If Gale Gates ever get a thought in their head, they may be a theater to reckon with. Their new production, Tilly Losch, shows once again that the company has an artful design sense, but not much filed in the idea department.
Unlike last season’s Field of Mars, which had the audience wandering about Gale Gates’s immense DUMBO space, Tilly Losch is a seated affair. The show consists of a long series of changing images: reenactments of Casablanca shift into a re-creation of Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World, then into an eerie cityscape. There’s no “play” to speak of, just a progression of scenes in director Michael Counts’s often sumptuous theater of images.
Aside from inducing jealousy in anyone who visits there, Gale Gates’s whopping 37,000-square-foot facility allows for superb use of depth. Scenes retreat further and further into the stage’s proscenium, ending at a beautiful, almost impossible remove. The most impressive section is a tableau of an apartment building exterior, windows revealing the movements of the people inside. The occupants drift around their rooms, anonymous lives muted by the sound of traffic. Doleful and Hopper-esque, it reveals Counts’s vision at its most arresting.
Less impressive (OK, stupid) is his choice to lip-synch about a quarter of the show to scenes from Casablanca. (Tilly Losch lifts so much from Casablanca, you wonder about copyright infringement.) It’s a goofball idea that perfectly illustrates the company’s apparent unwillingness to think anything through— a pity given their technical talent. Perhaps Counts needs a collaborator (he designs, directs, and writes), a person willing to force him beyond the pretty pictures. Otherwise, Gale Gates seems fated to more productions like this one— a lovely but meaningless exercise in scene design. —Brian Parks
Anatomy of a Murder
“I’m not a girl,” declares a butch-looking 21-year-old dressed in flannel, work boots, and dungarees. “I’m not sexually uncertain. I’m not a lesbian. I’m Brandon. That’s my name.” The title character of Leigh Silverman’s solo play, Brandon Teena (Present Company)— based on the true-crime story of Teena Brandon, the Nebraskan woman brutally raped and later shot to death for disguising her “true” sex— has to continually fight for the right to use her last name as her first. Though her anatomy says “female,” her mind and heart scream “male”— a discrepancy that can get pretty hairy, particularly if you happen to possess Brandon’s enviable knack with the ladies.
Portraying this transgendered woman poses many of the same challenges the real-life Brandon must have faced in her cruelly shortened life. How well, for example, does actor Erica Schmidt “pass” as a man? The soft angles of Schmidt’s face and the unmasculine verve of her voice slightly impede an otherwise effective performance. She does, however, lay bare the tissue of lies that comes with such a complicated double life, and she brings an expansive awareness of her character’s need to escape the powerlessness of her sex in the face of unremitting male violence.
In these gender-troubled days it seems as though everyone is converting this tale into a film, novel, or play. Kudos to Silverman for focusing on the inner life of her subject, a territory that has been eclipsed by our gluttonous interest in murderers and sexual mechanics. The piece relies a bit too heavily on slides and news clippings to fill in the dramatic blanks, though together Silverman and Schmidt capture the human center of a story whose fetishistic appeal is not the least part of what makes it a tragedy. —Charles McNulty