Love and Mao in the miracle days

Defunkt's 'Hundred Flowers' finds romantic comedy and complications as a plague floats away

Let a hundred flowers bloom, Chairman Mao said.

We have nothing to fear but fear itself, Franklin D. Roosevelt said.

Don’t trust the flowers. They might be snakes, waiting to bite you on the butt, Puppy said.

 

Bray and Kern: best friends. Photo: Heather Keeling

Bray and Kern: best friends. Photo: Heather Keeling

Maybe you’re not familiar with the wit and wisdom of the people’s philosopher Puppy. He’s a smart-talking paraplegic author of gay Marxist porn, the unlikely and clingingly adorable central character in David Zellnik’s equally unlikely and charming post-AIDS romantic comedy Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom, which is getting a winsome, sexy, and emotionally perceptive performance at defunkt theatre. A wheelchair-bound Matthew Kern, wheedling and wisecracking and alternately acting the wise guy and the yearning fool, becomes the fulcrum of the tale, which is about what happens when you’ve been living under a death sentence and it’s suddenly lifted.

Strictly speaking, Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom isn’t a post-AIDS play, because AIDS and HIV are still with us. But they’re vastly different from what they once were, and Zellnik’s play is set at the dawning of what seemed at the time an almost unbelievable new age. It takes place in the mid-1990s, when protease inhibitors began to tame the effects of HIV and suddenly offered a new lease on life to millions of people who had been facing almost certain wasting-away and premature death. In gay communities, it was a giddy and almost magical time, and maybe even a little fearful: Where do we go? What do we do?

Puppy, for one, is hopeful but wary. Better the devil you know, perhaps, and he sees in the promise of HIV drugs an ironic connection to Chairman Mao’s “hundred flowers” campaign. In 1956, the same year that the Soviet Union crushed the Hungarian Uprising, Mao seemed to take an opposite, more benevolent, tack in China. “Let a hundred flowers bloom,” he proclaimed: let a multitude of ideas loose to contend in an open intellectual and political market.

For a while, Chinese citizens took him up on his offer. Then Mao cracked down, arresting dissidents who had spoken out and sending many of them to forced labor camps. As he later bragged, he had “enticed the snakes out of their caves.”

The snakes in Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom seem mainly in the mind, but that doesn’t mean they’re harmless. The play’s romance strikes off in several directions, but centers on the partnership of Jake (Andrew Bray) and Samson (Steve Vanderzee), who had been resigned to dying together but now, thanks to drug treatment, are becoming healthy again. The trouble is, Samson has some troublesome side effects and spends a lot of time on the road; and Jake’s in a torpor, semi-paralyzed emotionally and unable to get up and do much of anything: he still can’t quite believe he’s not dying. Add Chip Sherman to the mix in several roles – most notably as a sexy shoe salesman who insists he’s straight but likes to fool around with guys – and the action becomes desperate, funny, and surprisingly moving. Protease inhibitors might be miracle drugs, but they’re not miracle workers. When you come back to life, you also come back to its many complications.

Zellnik wrote A Hundred Flowers in 2001, and even now its setup seems a little daring, a little dancing-on-skeletons, with a smart sense of the complicating fear and pain underlying the liberation. It’s a warm play, ultimately, a feel-good sort of story, but with enough nuance and emotional shadings to give it real impact. The cast’s quite winning, and the talented director Paul Angelo keeps the actors on their toes, nimbly navigating the rapids of sentiment, sheer comedy, sly raunch, and genuine emotion. Nothing to fear but fear itself. And fear has fangs.

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Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom continues through March 22 at defunkt, in the little Back Door Theatre behind Common Grounds coffee shop at 4319 Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard. Ticket and schedule information is here.

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