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DramaWatch: Reagan and AIDS, gay Trade, ‘My Fair Lady’

Fuse's "Ronald Reagan Murdered My Mentors" explores the loss of a gay generation; Corrib's "Trade" tells a sensitive personal queer tale; Henry Higgins hits the road.

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Clubbing in “Ronald Reagan Murdered My Mentors.” Photo: Greg Parkinson

Although I’ve never been a morning person, I can recall being up early one morning back in 2004 and stopping by a Fred Meyer store just as it opened. As I stepped up to the cash register, the checker – a prim-looking, white lady on the downside of middle age – said in a chipper voice, “How are you today?”

I’d been glancing at the newspapers on racks next to the checkstand, the headlines trumpeting the funeral of the 40th President. And so, in my bleariness, I answered truthfully.

“Well, since it’s the day they’re putting that evil bastard Reagan in the ground, I suppose I’m doing alright.”

The woman said nothing, but her slack-jawed expression nearly screamed, “How could he say such a thing about that nice old man?!”

In hindsight, having confronted the exponential mendacity of the American right wing under Gingrich, Rove, Cheney, W. Bush, and Trump, Reagan might appear almost principled and competent. But make no mistake: He was every bit as polarizing a figure as any of his successors. I’ve long felt his impact was summed up well by the pundit (perhaps Calvin Trillin?) who asserted that Reagan ranked as the greatest politician of the second half of the 20th century, because he had been able to make an entire generation of Americans as greedy and callous as he and his wife.

My gripes with Reagan and his legacy are broadly political. For C. Julian Jimenez, it’s personal.

Jimenez’ play Ronald Reagan Murdered My Mentors, heading into the final weekend of a deeply affecting production from Fuse Theatre Ensemble, explores the peculiar challenges of gay men of a certain age, struggling to build lives as out adults because the generation of role models they might have learned from was decimated by AIDS in the 1980s.

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When we meet our central character, a man we know simply by the nickname Lost, he’s dressed like a freak. His faded jeans and a white T-shirt would fit in at a baseball game, but he’s in a hardcore leather bar; if he knows the code here, he’s ignoring it. One track of the story continues in this setting, as Lost hooks up repeatedly with an older man he calls Big Belly (a bear aesthetic predominates here, with a beer gut described as “a work of art”) but eventually seeks to bring their connection out of the sweaty shadows of the club and make it a dating relationship. In alternating scenes, we see a younger Lost, circa 1990, as an anxious teen, desperately seeking direction and connection through a counseling call line, where his social, sexual and even parental yearnings flow toward a caring but careful man he calls Telephone, who balances a sympathetic ear with a no-nonsense attitude, telling him “there’s no room for sissies in fagdom.”

The accusatory thrust of the play’s title comes through in a third narrative track, intermittent scenes that feature various actors in cheap, rubber Reagan masks. Reagan long has been blamed for indifference and inaction in the face of the unfolding AIDS crisis during his administration. Jimenez presents him here in dark dream sequences where he capers about as a sort of Grim Gipper, a bitchy bartender of an Underworld club populated by gay ghosts, including Reagan’s own friend, Rock Hudson. “The closet was a mighty force back then,” one of them recalls ruefully.

To the playwright’s credit, while Reagan surely is a villain here, he’s not entirely a straw man. He’s given space to be Devil’s advocate (or his own), arguing, among other things, that gay leaders bore responsibility for “active denial of your own complicity … It wasn’t me fighting to keep the bathhouses open.” Then again, you don’t end up at the center of such macabre fantasias if you’ve been a saint.

For all the theatrical flair and historical context the Reagan scenes contribute, they’re very much the lesser parts of the show. What’s crucial here is Lost and his earnest, fumbling attempts at connection, along with the ethical, emotional and psycho-sexual dilemmas that he gives rise to for Telephone and Big Belly.

Director James R. Dixon shows a sure hand in moving between the differing tones of the three narrative tracks, and in bringing the seedy sexual subculture to life, but the triumph here is in the finely drawn, multi-layered performances he draws from Nick Hongola as Lost and Anthony Harden as Telephone and Big Belly. They’re funny and fucked-up, complex and real – you might say dramatically seductive. And in their way they represent a kind of cultural – no, just human – spirit that not even Ronnie Raygun could shoot down.

***

Orlando Reyes Cabrera and Damon Kupper in “Trade.” Photo: David Kinder/kinderpics

Ronald Reagan Murdered My Mentors both celebrates and critiques a gay culture of sexual libertinism. Trade, the Mark O’Halloran two-hander receiving a sensitive rendering by director Tamara Carroll for Corrib Theatre, takes place a world away, but is shaped by some of the same social and psycho-sexual pressures. 

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Instead of a multi-part narrative that jumps around in time and place and even dimension, here we have two men in a drab hotel room, talking. By the setting, the looks of the two – one of them young and impatient, the other middle-aged and nervous – and the awkward indirectness of the small talk, we can guess the basics of the situation: a rent boy and a trick. And, in what feels like a sort of backward corollary to the Chekhovian dictum of the onstage gun (if you show it in Act One, it must be fired by Act Three), one of the characters here is nursing a bloody nose at the outset, so an explanation of that must be at least part of what we’re driving toward.

That journey feels longer than the brief hour it takes up, but not because it’s a slog; rather, because it packs in so much that will stay with you, packing allusions to a lifetime of conflicted emotions in every quiet gesture and fraught silence.

What we have here again is a queer man – though this time a closeted, married one – struggling, fumbling toward authenticity, yearning for a life in which he can align sexual gratification with emotional fulfillment, sensation with meaning. O’Halloran’s taut, understated dialogue is deceptively casual in the way it develops the creeping revelations of its protagonist’s circumstances and feelings, and Carrol and the actors display a firm grasp on the tentative nature of the two men and their relationship.

I went into this expecting strong work from Damon Kupper, a Third Rail Rep member and one of my favorite Portland actors. Even so, I found his work a revelation, the way he shows the Older Man’s shifting palette of guilt, pain, fear, longing, regret and so on, all their soft colors and sharp edges never quite breaking the stoic regular-bloke mask he’s always worn to survive. He’s sweaty, tight-wound, gruffly needy – and thoroughly heartbreaking. As Younger Man, Orlando Reyes Cabrera suggests innocence without naivete, letting his character’s caring nature show, even though  we know it is bound by his pragmatism and the plain fact that his heart is elsewhere. 

O’Halloran chose a telling title. Younger Man, of course, is plying a trade, of sorts (sometimes called rough trade, but gentle here). But it also alludes to the transactional nature of the relationship between the two, and by extension, perhaps, to all relationships. And it speaks to Older Man’s desire to trade the life he’s long lead for another one. 

As with our other friend, Lost, he has no one to show him the way.

Opening

Sami Murphy, Michael Hegarty as Alfred P. Doolittle, and Ashley Agrusa in the national tour of “My Fair Lady” coming to Portland’s Keller Auditorium. Photo: Jeremy Daniel

When it comes to language, I’m a bit of a stickler. It’s important that diction, grammar and syntax conform to what I think they should be! And yet, all my screaming back at the fumble-faced ex-jocks employed as “commentators” on ESPN (can anything save us from the horror of Kendrick Perkins?) doesn’t change anything. 

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So I can appreciate the frustrations of Henry Higgins. 

Invented by George Bernard Shaw for his 1912 play Pygmalion, Higgins is a professor of linguistics who conducts a social experiment with a poor flower girl, improving her prospects by reforming her heavy Cockney accent. 

According to an account in Broadway Musicals: the 101 Greatest Shows of All Time, producer Gabriel Pascal obtained motion-picture rights to the story and began seeking writers to turn it into a musical. “Rodgers and Hammerstein themselves worked on the project for over a year before declaring the play impossible for musicalization. Pascal approached countless others … before Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe accepted the assignment. After working together on the piece, they reached the same conclusion.”

But as with their determined professor, their perseverance paid off. The resulting My Fair Lady has been an enduring hit on stage and screen for several decades now. Its latest triumph is a Lincoln Center Theater production directed by Bartlett Sher, and coming to the Keller Auditorium as part of the touring Broadway Across America series.

The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain, but such songs as “I Could Have Danced All Night,” “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly,” “On the Street Where You Live,” and “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” stay mainly in the sweeter realms of memory.

The flattened stage

Pushy brinko!

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As part of a three-day “memory activism” event also including public discussions and film screenings, Vanport Mosaic presents Walking Through Portland With a Panther: the Life of Mr. Kent Ford. All Power!, a play by Don Wilson Glenn about a Black Panther Party activist in the 1960s. La’Tevin Alexander stars, directed by Damaris Webb.

Closing

Elvia Reed as Molly and Jonathan Hernandez as Alejandro in “Welcome to Arroyo’s.” Photo: David Kinder/kinderpics

Lauding Welcome to Arroyo’s as “theater produced with a practice of solidarity and welcome,” ArtsWatch reviewer Darleen Ortega points out the way Bobby Bermea’s production for Profile Theatre creates a warm and respectful space both for traditional theatergoers and audiences more familiar with the hip-hop culture that is the setting for Kristoffer Diaz’s spirited comedy. It sounds like the kind of show that deserves an extended mix, but the needle lifts this weekend all the same.

It’s last call as well for Clue, in an immersive presentation by Experience Theatre Project; Oregon Children’s Theatre’s teen musical The Mad Ones; and, across the big river, The Play That Goes Wrong at Vancouver’s Magenta Theater. 

The best line I read this week

“And so I beseech you, through the serenity of the Father, through his wondrous Word, through the sweet fluid of remorse, through the spirit of truth, through the sacred sound to which all creation resounds, through the Word that gave birth to the world, through the sublimity of the Father whose sweet viriditas [viridity, verdancy] released the Word in the Virgin’s womb, where it took on flesh like a honeycomb built out from honey: may this same sound, the power of the Father, descend on your heart and elevate your soul so that you do not remain idly numb to this person’s words.”

– the 12th-century nun and composer Hildegard of Bingen in a letter to a church superior, as quoted in The New Yorker. Modern translation: “Hey: Listen up!”

***

That’s all I have for now. I’ll try to do better the next time.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Editor

Marty Hughley is a Portland journalist who writes about theater, dance, music and culture. His honors have included a National Arts Journalism Program fellowship at the University of Georgia, a fellowship at the NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Theater and Musical Theater at the University of Southern California, and first-place awards for arts reporting in the Society of Professional Journalists Pacific Northwest Excellence in Journalism Competitions. In 2013 he was inducted into the Oregon Music Hall of Fame for his contributions to the industry. A Portland native, Hughley studied history at Portland State University, worked at the alternative newsweekly Willamette Week in the late 1980s as pop music critic and arts editor, then spent nearly a quarter century at The Oregonian as a reporter, feature writer and critic. His recent freelance work has appeared in Oregon ArtsWatch, Artslandia and the Oregon Humanities magazine. He lives with his cat, and dies a little with each new setback to the Trail Blazers.

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One Response

  1. I just heard that Margaret Chapman, Portland’s most prolific costumer has passed away.She was an amazing talent and I hope Portland will honor her for her incredible talent.

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