Quick, somebody buy Antonin Scalia a multi-show pass to “Fuse: The NYC Celebration of Queer Culture”—a three-week theater, dance, puppetry, circus, video, drag, music, and performance festival that runs through July 5 at Here. The fulminating justice, who wrote a scathing dissent from last Thursday’s Supreme Court ruling that found homos to be human after all, warned of the “massive disruption of the current social order” that the court’s striking down of sodomy laws entails. “Fuse” would hardly prove him wrong. But it just might convince him that queer disruption flourishes no matter what nine folks in choir robes say. And that it’s a wondrous thing.
Presenting dozens of shows, some “featured” and many more attached to one of nine focused series (Cabaret Macabre, Body Blend, Erotic Puppetry Parlor, and so on), “Fuse” is a queer marriage of the 10-year-old “Hot!” festival produced by (the recently homeless) Dixon Place and “Queer@Here,” the annual Gay Pride program at the steadfast Soho miniplex. Did someone say queer marriage? That’s exactly what Scalia warned the court’s ruling would leave the door open to!
But don’t expect assimilationist pleading—or the mainstream mode of realism that goes with it—at this decidedly downtown affair. The works may be romantic, romping, raunchy, rough-hewn, punk-rock, poetic, or pretty. Sometimes all in one show. And if some, too, are at times puerile, unfinished, self-indulgent, or obscure, they’re at least engaged in a genuine exploration of identity, representation, and/or artistic form.
On the Verge Theatre Company’s Lesbian Pulp-O-Rama Gets Sweaty! is, within the framework of queer American theater anyway, the most traditional of the pieces I sampled last week. Joining a long line of campy rebukes to stereotypical queer portrayals and mainstream failure to recognize the homoeroticism of almost any occasion, it frolics through such hotbeds of lesbo lust as Hollywood studios, girls’ summer camps, and all-women surfer beaches. These skits add new material to the troupe’s ongoing series inspired by pulp novels of the 1950s and ’60s, books that often presented lurid lesbiana for straight male readers—though of course dykes read them, too.
As Michael Bronski points out in his recent anthology, Pulp Friction, these books—authored mostly by men—exaggerated sordidness, self-hatred, and violence. By the time most censorship laws had been abolished in the 1960s, the content had shifted from the vaguely romantic to the downright pornographic—as understood by a male audience, of course. (Gay male pulps, meanwhile, followed a separate trajectory, written by gay men for gay men. The excerpts collected in Bronski’s book are surprisingly juicy and sometimes sort of literary.)
In reclaiming—and refashioning—these pre-Stonewall fictions, On the Verge brings witty costumes and pointed writing to what, in the end, is pretty much a one-punchline endeavor. If the work is not as delightfully demonic as Charles Ludlam’s or as astutely political as the Five Lesbian Brothers’, the seven-member company has the comic acting chops to keep Lesbian Pulp-O-Rama frisky and fun.
The writing, acting, musical, and directing skills behind Phone/Sex/Cancer—part of the Queer Youth series at “Fuse”—are, well, youthful. Created and performed by self-described “queer grrrls ages 15 to 25,” the 90-minute play with punk songs follows the tribulations of a self-hating high school student with aspirations as a spoken-word artist (“The walls of my cage are my mother”), her tranny-boy girlfriend (“The walls of my cage are my gender”), and her vicious and demanding mom (“The walls of my cage are my cancer”). The writer, Gina Young, is herself caged in by commonplace tropes, but she’s bursting with an imagination that is sure to break through the clichés before long. And the play has its poignancy, especially in its portrayal of the transgender girl’s self-doubt and growing self-assertion.
Though not directly addressing LGBT themes, the Laboratory Theater’s Seven Deadly Pleasures may have been the queerest piece seen last week—at least in the sense Stefan Brecht invented some 25 years ago, when he coined the term “queer theater” to describe the ironic, weird, experimental, anti-dramatic, and compelling work of such artists as Ludlam, Jack Smith, John Vaccaro, and Hot Peaches. A lounge act demented by German Expressionism (or is it the other way around?), Seven Deadly Pleasures presents Heinrich (Corey Dargel) and Elsa (Sheila Donovan) in concert, sort of. Often the agonizing pair doesn’t get around to performing a song they’ve just introduced, as they plunge into aggressive Pina Bausch-like choreography or race to a bottle of bourbon on the floor of the stage and knock back a shot. When they do stay at the mics, they can’t remember the words or keep up with a pre-recording. When they actually sing—the driving music is by Dargel, the words adapted from Goethe—they soon interrupt themselves, as if the beauty of a single phrase would be too much to bear.
“Audiences love danger,” Heinrich asserts at one point. Seven Deadly Pleasures produces a forceful pitch of fear—for the safety of the actors as they carom around the stage, for the future of a form that had always seemed so undemanding, for the viability of heterosexuality. On second thought, don’t tell Scalia.