Everything you wanted to know*

*... about Texas, but were afraid to ask. (And about the OUTwright Festival, and its cult hit "Sordid Lives.")

Fuse Theatre Ensemble’s OUTwright Theatre Festival, celebrating its fifth year, is bringing a lot more to the table than it has in previous years: a bevy of readings and workshops, some already finished, others still to come. And it has one main attraction: Del Shores’ cult hit Sordid Lives, which has manifested in a few incarnations since it first saw daylight in 1996: play, film, and television. OUTwright is staging the cult classic in its first form: live, onstage, fully produced.

The Funhouse Lounge, where all of this is happening, is just off the busy corridor of close-in Southeast Portland now known as “D Street.” Nestled in between houses, it stands out as a Carlo Collodi-inspired oasis with a gallery of velvet paintings dedicated to dead celebrities, an exotic collection of faux-Versailles mirrors, and a bar dedicated to drinking from the sort of 90 proof well that any chaps-wearing man would find an after-hours home. It’s the perfect place for Sordid Lives, which is best described as a John Waters-inspired text, but with a lot more compassion and “real” moments.

Victoria Blake as Dr. Eve and Michael J. Teufel as Brother Boy. Greg Parkinson Photography

There are towns in Texas where, if you order a salad at a restaurant, your waitress will ask: “Potato or macaroni?” And in Sordid Lives there is an itsy bitsy town called Snyder, Texas, on the outskirts of the Panhandle, that has a single restaurant whose salad is composed of wilted iceberg lettuce paired with a thick slice of roma tomato similarly aged and drowned in an almost aspic consistency of French dressing. There is one stop light. One water tower. Plenty of homes and churches. A school. There is nothing else. Shiner Bock is the light and cheap beer that Texans romanticize, in spite of its actual taste. Women still wear their hair high: as the saying goes the higher the hair, the closer to God. It is welded together by cans of spray-net. No person leaves their home without full attire and face on. Plastic surgery is part of most cosmetic approaches to staying young at heart.

The lifecycle of the Sordid Lives-style Texan can be observed as birth, perfunctory education, initiation into the divine worlds of sports (Astroturf was invented in the state), marriage, parenthood, the joining of a social club or Junior League, and of course, what all Americans – indeed, all people everywhere – come last to experience, death. Between this rigid arc lie the cultural cover-ups of ethnicity, divorce, drug or alcohol addiction, and any kind of gender or sexuality that is not as straight as an arrow. Some may argue that Austin is an oasis (they did give us the official tagline “Keep Portland Weird.”) But, most college towns have a fluctuating population that tends to offer some diversity.

It is in these tender details of the lives of Texans that playwright Shores captures so exquisitely the real and absurd. He doesn’t gloss over or try to give a facelift to the people in Sordid Lives. The play is mined from Shores’ life as a man who grew up on the Plano and came out as queer. Written in the early 1990s, it’s a 10-ring circus that focuses on the death of a family matriarch and the sons who betray her religious beliefs (or so we are led to believe for most of the performance time). The middle people in this show are struggling to discover whether they’ll stick with the cruelty of tradition or fully accept the family members they know and love.

Jennifer Lanier as Lavonda: hair today, hair tomorrow. Greg Parkinson Photography

With any cult work of art, there’s a population who’ve dined on it many times and over many years who make up the best-educated appreciators of a production. The evening I attended Sordid Lives, a packed room of fans did not fail to hide their exultation in the play. Like the crowd at a Rocky Horror Picture Show screening on a Friday night, they sang along, shouted, and otherwise became the rocking gospel choir, giving a definite “yes” to the show’s accuracy.

The star in OUTwright’s gem of acting under Rusty Tennant’s direction is the under-hired Michael Teufel, who plays Brother Boy, a gay transexual who’s been locked up in a mental ward by his mother, now deceased for 20 years. He’s under the torture of Dr. Eve (Victoria Blake), who prescribes “gay conversion therapy” under the guise of help, but really to set her future career in motion as the Oprah of right-wing civil liberties and inhuman values. She wants to crack Brother Boy’s tough nut and make a tidy fortune in book sales off her “triumph.” Teufel’s Brother Boy is sweet, a nimble orator of the undercut, a heart-swell of apple pie adoration for his C&W heroines who keep his will to live sparked by his own imaginings.

Next to the stamp of box restaurant chains and nouveau hype that makes “D Street” a destination for people each weekend, Sordid Lives and OUTwright stands as a contrast of dedicated craftsmanship to controversial material at a time when our country faces a civil rights crisis. Sordid Lives allows you to have your cake and eat it, too by supporting local well-made art and the LGBTQ community.

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Fuse Theatre Ensemble’s Sordid Lives, part of the OUTWright Theatre Festival, continues through June 11 at Funhouse Lounge. Ticket and schedule information here.

For other OUTwright attractions, including the Thursday, June 1, reading of J. Julian Christopher’s Locusts Have No King and an evening with Sordid Lives playwright Del Shores on Saturday, June 3, see the festival’s Facebook homepage.

 

 

One Response.

  1. I take grave offense at one grievous fact error in this otherwise admirable story. Some of us ex-Texans actually enjoyed the actual taste of Shiner Bock. Its low price (back in the day) per keg no doubt aided the attraction for impoverished college students, but your Northwest hops-induced bitterness bias clearly has impaired your appreciation of other, more refined elements of malty beverages. Perhaps you were actually referring to the bockless swill sold as Shiner beer, which was indeed light and inconsequential, or the even more appalling Lone Star, best employed for fire ant eradication. Apology accepted.

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