Just a couple of posts back, I noted that in these dark and scary times, it’s good to get away from it all and indulge in things that are nowhere near dark and scary. And that’s exactly what I did Friday night.
The first thing I did Friday morning was reserve a seat for Friday night’s performance of “Queer Shorts 2.1: Queer Love.” And as I indicated by the above tweet, it was indeed a pleasant evening to do so, weather wise; it was a springlike day in Madison (sunny skies, temperatures just above 50 degrees, not a drop of rain or flake of snow).
As previously mentioned (and reviewed) here and here, “Queer Shorts” is the annual collection of plays put on by Madison’s LGBT-oriented theater company, StageQ. Every year, StageQ puts out a nationwide call for playwrights to submit plays that are 5-to-10 minutes in length, has minimal set design, and fit into a certain theme. The 12th edition of “Queer Shorts” — which, for the record, has its last performance the afternoon I write this (February 18) — has a theme of “Queer Love” to match this past week’s Valentine’s Day.
That “love” theme is part of the reason StageQ moved “Queer Shorts” from its longtime June position in past StageQ seasons (to coincide with the month of LGBT pride) to February. Another reason for moving “Queer Shorts” to February, as indicated here, was an experiment to attract more submissions and bigger crowds. The performance I went to Friday night had a pretty good crowd from what I could tell, and StageQ had a deluge of submissions, so you can say the move to February was a success on both counts.
Speaking of submissions, one of StageQ’s directors came out at the start of the show to offer a nice explanation of their play selection process, one that involves the group’s powers-that-be assembling to read each play, grade them on a 100-150 scale, and discuss which ones to add to “Queer Shorts” and how many, ostensibly to fit a comfortable running time (Friday night’s show went 2-1/2 hours, counting intermission and a raffle draw). The pre-show talk was a nice way to open the door to the whole “how to put on a show” process.
That talk was also the start of an enjoyable evening at “Queer Shorts,” with the 10 plays StageQ selected nicely fitting the “Queer Love” theme in one form or another. The night also included, for me, a thrill at intermission and a post-show “oops,” and I’ll delve into them in my next blog post, which you can access here. But let’s devote this post to “Queer Shorts 2.1” itself and the plays that made up the show. Rather than go through them chronologically, I’ll begin with the 5 plays that, intentionally or not, had their own sub-theme, one that you don’t see a lot of depictions of in either factual media or fictional dramatizations — coming out of the closet or expressing or exploring your sexuality in the later years of life. Let’s begin with:
“Never Too Old” (1st play of the night), which centers on Troy, a divorced male somewhere in his late 40s or early 50s, who discovers he’s having a sexual identity crisis after a longtime friend comes out to him as “Bisexual Man!” and invites him for a drink or two. I was really impressed by this play’s use of stage blocking to emphasize present time, location, and flashback moments: There was Troy downstage before the audience, speaking on his phone to his daughter; at stage right is said daughter and her friend/roomate/girlfriend/fiancé (the relationship of the two is not made a big deal of), speaking on the phone at some other location; and on stage left is Troy’s friend/date. Since Troy is front and center, he’s always illuminated, while his daughter and his friend are darkened when they’re out-of-scene. A nice, fun play to start the evening, and good of the daughter to reassure her father that it’s okay to explore who he is and be brave in doing so.
“Rex Turns 50” (4th play of the night) finds Spencer making a BIG deal about longtime boyfriend Rex turning the big 5-0, complete with a surprise breakfast and gifts, along with thoughts about a little somethin’ somethin’, if you know what I mean. Rex, however, does not want to make a big deal out of it. The play turns out to be not so much about the fear of growing old but more about appreciation for what two people have done together for so many years. There’s also one final surprise that literally elicited a big “Awww…” from the audience.
“A Lovely Little Life” (5th play of the night, and the last before intermission) was the emotional high watermark of “Queer Shorts'” first half. Two women, Kitty and Sylvia, recollect to each other, and to the audience, about their half century of life together, from how they were introduced to their first date, their working together, living together, and, sadly, how they had to part. I won’t give away the outcome too much, but the play clearly demonstrates the true love Kitty and Sylvia have for each other over the 50 years the 10-minute play encompasses. It also puts all parts of the Drury Stage’s space and lighting, as well as “Queer Shorts'” traditional spare props and wood blocks, to good use. It also highlights another thing about “Queer Shorts 2.1”: The economical use of actors. Some, but not all, of the thespians appeared in multiple plays (mainly one pre-intermission and one afterwards) and helped move scenery between plays. Here in “A Lovely Little Life,” the actresses playing Kitty and Sylvia share space with a third actress appearing briefly in “multiple roles,” filling each (e.g. friend, waitress, doctor) with just the right amount of voice, posture, position, and quick costume change to help differentiate one from another (think Tatiana Maslany in Orphan Black).
“A Life-Enriching Community” (6th play of the night) brings “Queer Shorts 2.1” back from intermission with the story of Adam and Paul, who have just moved from Petoskey, Michigan (“the top of the mitten”) to warm and sunny Miami (“the end of the dick”), and are now filling out final paperwork with a perky “Julie, your Cruise Director”-type representative at a retirement enclave (the “life-enriching community” of the title). The play is less about where Adam and Paul have moved to and more about where they’ve come from (and not just Petoskey), their shared experiences, and the baggage they’ve accumulated together (and not just their many boxes of belongings). One of several “Queer Shorts 2.1” plays that explored deep character depth in between the jokes and emotion, and nicely so.
“Slow Dating” (8th play of the night) — I imagine everyone loves a good monologue when seeing a play. The previous “Queer Shorts” I’ve attended and reviewed (again, here and here) featured pretty powerful solo spots. “Queer Shorts 2.1” was no exception, as this play featured Esther, a long-married heterosexual woman in her 70s, talking to the audience about attending a “speed dating for seniors” event, only to discover that her best match was not another man… but another woman. Esther, it appears, didn’t realize it at first, but the stranger does. Boy, oh boy, does the stranger realize it, going so far as to invite Esther to her place. This monologue wasn’t all laughs, mind you; the actress playing Esther packs a lot of humor and a whole lot more of pathos and melancholy in her talk, especially in the final moments. This play got a rousing response from the audience, as well as a standing ovation during the end-of-show curtain call.
So, yeah, 5 out of 10 plays that depict being gay or exploring sexuality as one ages. But let’s not forget the rest of the “Queer Shorts 2.1” plays that had their own merit, regardless of the age of the characters:
“Lunch With ‘Friends'” (2nd play of the night) — no, the “Friends” aren’t in quotes because Ross, Rachel, etc. are involved. (Really, people, it’s been 13 years…) Rather, this play featured two old friends, business professionals both, getting together again to talk about friendship and relationships old or new. Well, it wasn’t so much about catching up so much as it was this: One of the two ladies crows joyously about her fashion sense and her present 6-month-old romance with another woman, while the other denies being high-maintenance in personality (despite being clearly so) and dissing her ex-girlfriend. Nice rat-a-tat dialogue, and a “ooh-la-la” twist (and unexpected news) at the very end.
“Here or Back at My Place?” (3rd play of the night) was described as “a Biblical experiment with love, lust, and the male libido.” It featured representations of the traditional good/bad conscience (one guy wearing angel wings, the other devil horns) coming, at Cupid’s call, to a gay bar (complete with multicolored flashing lights) to coax some guy into a night with another man, either by taking the slow route or going straight into physical adventures. Hands down the campiest and most riotous play of the night.
“Perfect 10” (7th play of the night) focused on two friends, gay Alex and straight Jessica, at a college campus grading guys and gals passing by on a 0-to-10 hot-or-not scale. Or to be more precise, Jessica is doing the grading while Alex is moping. That is until Alex comes across another guy, Cody, and the two strike a conversation while Jessica goes on the prowl with some guy she thinks is an 11. Alex and Cody interact well together, and their dialog serves as nice, subtle proof that all budding relationships shouldn’t start with determining whether one is *ahem* well built.
“Fairy: Tale of Two Brothers Separate(d)” (9th play of the night) is a deconstruction of another non-romantic kind of love, a literally fractured “fairy tale” (complete with a semi-magical narrator) about two brothers — one straight and manly, the other gay and insecure — who go through a love/hate relationship from childhood to manhood. Over the course of the 10-minutes-or-so play, we see the true range of anger and emotion, as the dismissive straight brother and his troubled younger sibling face one turning point after another, including a very serious one that slowly if tentatively starts to bridge the bond between the two, who begin to realize that their bond as siblings is stronger than what makes them different.
“Non-Refundable” (10th and final play of the night) wasn’t so much about love as it was about a female couple on an adventure in eastern Europe, where they get into difficulties involving botched passports and a principality that just declared itself independent from the rest of (I think) Slovakia and whose new border apparently runs through the hotel the couple are staying at. But while it may have seemed as if this final play was at face value in “10 minutes until 1AM” territory, its subject matter wasn’t as silly when you get into the proverbial meat and potatoes: The couple both work as school teachers in conservative Kentucky and are tired of telling their colleagues that they’re “just friends.” Their hotel situation, and the geopolitical uncertainty immediately surrounding them, seem to inspire them to declare their own form of independence as a lesbian couple, no matter what the disapproving world may think. While this night, overall, seemed to have a slightly subdued atmosphere compared to the previous “Queer Shorts” shows I’ve attended, it was also a night where, unlike December’s “Are We Delicious? Musical Heroes” show, real life did not creep in very much. “Non-Refundable” and its “blue staters from a red state” subtexts came the closest, though, but its nicely-tuned humor alleviated any unease about having to dwell over current events very much.
Overall, another great time at StageQ and “Queer Shorts.” One little disappointment, however, was the lack of trans representation in the plays, either in their subject matter or the whole cross-gender portrayals (i.e. men as women, women as men, gender non-conforming roles). At a time when the overall trans community needs all the support it can get — and on the same night when a certain progressive-leaning HBO host invites a notorious anti-trans internet troll (whose name does not deserve mentioning here) on his show and the two get all grotesquely buddy-buddy on trans issues (and I’m glad I didn’t watch or record that whole thing) — the feeling of not seeing trans depictions in “Queer Shorts 2.1” was a little bit of a downer.
That’s not to assume, of course, that StageQ didn’t consider trans depictions and/or trans-themed plays for “Queer Shorts 2.1.” I imagine StageQ’s powers-that-be may very well had such plays submitted to them for the show (I’m not privy to any evidence of that, of course). Still, speaking as a small (crossdressing) part of the trans community, here’s hoping next year’s “Queer Shorts” will have at least a little bit of trans representation. (Side note: It was mentioned at the outset that the 2018 theme of “Queer Shorts” will be “Unity,” which all of us need now more than ever, no matter what letter of LGBTQA we fall under.)
But I won’t let the lack of “T” in “Queer Shorts 2.1” dampen my experience. My fellow audience members sure didn’t, and I bet anyone else who saw the previous performances felt the same way. I did indeed enjoy the evening, conversed with a couple of nice folks in the audience, and saw some pretty darn good performances. It’s making me anticipate next year’s “Queer Shorts” even more. And with my attendance, I’m also happy to have enjoyed a night of something so precious and so important that everyone in every city should appreciate: Live, local theater.
As I noted above, there was more to my experience at “Queer Shorts 2.1” than just seeing 10 plays. Click on this link to read a couple of postscripts to my night that bears mentioning. (Well, at least I think they bear mentioning.)