Arts Spotlight: 627 - Brent Dundore Photography

Divas & Drag. Photo by Brent Dundore

June 13-15
LUSH, 990 Central Ave. NE, Minneapolis

Drag performers and opera performers collaborate at LUSH with what promises to be a dizzying spectacle to launch Pride 2019! Arbeit Opera Theatre Founder Kelly Turpin shares, “The wonderful part about running an opera company is that I get to program passion projects that match AOT’s mission. As a company, DIVAS & DRAG (D&D) is important because it is an unabashed celebration of identity; of all the beautiful, expressive ways that we know ourselves. AOT produces socially relevant opera, and sometimes that can slip into ‘depressing opera’, but owning and being proud of something is also an effective way to get people aware of what’s around them. Selfishly, I wanted to create this event because I’ve been in love with drag culture for about 12 years now. I didn’t want to wait another season to collaborate with some of the best drag artists in Minnesota! D&D, like all AOT events, is primarily about community, and what brings us together. Opera and drag share so many of the same qualities of expression, grand spectacle, storytelling, and identity. This event is the perfect way for drag fans to witness opera up close, and opera fans to experience drag in all its glory. At the end of the night, I think we’ll all agree that true art isn’t always best experienced over three hours in a dusty hall; sometimes it’s best with friends you never knew, sharing a drink, enjoying who you are, while a Queen death drops to Puccini.”

Lovejets. Image courtesy of Squares & Rebels

Lovejets: Queer Male Poets on 200 Years of Walt Whitman

How very strange so many poems featured in Lovejets: Queer Male Poets on 200 Years of Walt Whitman are transgressive by today’s standards. Not transgressive because of their considerable homoerotic content, but because today the physical male body has come to be seen as an evil vestibule percolating with violence, devoid of love or any sort of goodness. And beauty? Forget it! One wonders what Walt Whitman would think of all this disgust with masculine nature where innocent awkwardness can be construed as abuse in the eyes of someone primed for man hatred.

Editor Raymond Luczak, a master of poetically homoerotic writing himself, recognizes the centrality of Whitman to queer literature that has sprung into existence since the time he walked the earth, the docks, and the streets. The editor has selected numerous superb poems that reverberate to those Whitmanesque textures of male bonding, sensuosity, and unconditional love for masculinity—textures whose layers undulate between heroic manliness and homoeroticism. Textures misunderstood nowadays on both sides of the political spectrum, though for very different reasons—homophobia on one side, and misandry, which can have dreadfully homophobic consequences, on the other.

Jeffery Beam dedicates his poem Physical Love to Jean Genet. His erotic appreciation of the male body is directly and organically connected with nature and deliciously expressed. Beam’s A Welcome to the Black Sun honors James Baldwin.

David Cummer dedicates his viscerally descriptive Unexpectedly to Paul Monette, who died of AIDS 24 years ago. City life comes jarringly alive.

Rocco Russo’s What makes a poem gay?, dedicated to Langston Hughes, muses on gender presentation and gay stereotypes. Scott Hightower’s One Arm recalls the pugilistic and the Baroque to be mined within the literary art of Tennessee Williams.

Mutsuo Takahashi dedicates his fittingly ghostly With Twig in Hand to commemorate the 48th anniversary of the death of Shinobu Orikuchi, author of the revered esoteric The Book of the Dead. The acclaimed Jeffrey Angles translated that book which was admired by Yukio Mishima, a gay legend himself, who, like Whitman, was devoted to the masculine principle. Angles has translated the Lovejets selection as well.

Felice Picano’s In Memoriam: Wystan Hugh Auden, 1973 sums up the impact a larger-than-life generation of gay poets impacted upon a generation born later. Picano juxtaposes the death of W. H. Auden with the daily lives most of us live, where a trip to a supermarket can be consequential in shifting our perception of reality in an unexpected and bittersweet way.

A poem written by heterosexual Philip Dacey is mind-bogglingly beautiful: Walt and Joe. When discovering his blue collar, military veteran father was bisexual, Dacey generously and bravely imagined sacred male-to-male moments his own dad might have experienced. Beguiling and wrenching.

Another staggering literary moment occurs in Luczak’s own poem, Aphrodisiac, dedicated to James White: where lawmen were arrested into silence observing how guys, toughened like themselves, made love: no other language but this inchoate translation of connecting.

Luczak understands how lines are blurred between gay and straight. Desire is palpably fluid in the shadows beyond censure of a homophobic public and a gay community that would territorially define sexuality in absolute “either/or” terms every bit as much. He also unconceals the profoundly masculine undercurrent inherent in homosexuality.

This is especially poignant on the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots as White, renowned for The Salt Ecstasies, a groundbreaking book on homosexual desire, was very much a gay man of that era. After his death, the gay literary quarterly The James White Review was first published in Minneapolis in 1983.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Image courtesy of Theatre in the Round Players

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance 
Through June 23
Theatre in the Round Players, 245 Cedar Ave., Minneapolis

Dorothy M. Johnson wrote the short story that evolved into what is regarded as one of the great John Ford/John Wayne film collaborations. The violent ways of the old American West are confronted in what is also a play by Jethro Compton, now presented by Theatre in the Round Players, a group that consistently shines with classic work done well.

Director Brian Joyce says The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is “a drama about good vs. evil and optimism vs. the status quo. It revolves around a mythical town called Two Trees and one man’s journey of self-discovery. It has cowboys, six-shooters, and a complex villain. Exploring how a single life can influence so many others both for good and evil. It explores love, friendship and fate. Brutally shows the racism of the time and how insidious it was and is.”


The Merry Wives of Windsor
June 21-July 21
Metropolitan Area Parks

The region’s foremost producer of plays from the English Renaissance presents a delightful, but not-so-often produced William Shakespeare comedy. One of its major cads is the predatory Falstaff, best known as the corrupter of youth in the Bard’s English history plays, Henry IV, Parts I and II. But he gets schooled in The Merry Wives of Windsor by women he tries to deceive into marriage. Very much a satirical view of the time’s accepted view of marriage as a way to exploit women for financial gain, it serves as a window into what was a common view of marriage at the time. A view that Shakespeare could not abide.

Joe Wiener, a featured actor in the 2015 Minnesota Fringe production of Ellen Krug’s trans bio-play, Getting to Ellen, plays the role. He says, “The Falstaff we see in Merry Wives of Windsor is not really the same one we see in the Henry plays. They’re both intelligent and witty, but the Merry Wives Falstaff is a bit more incompetent and completely lacking in self-awareness. He’s a man who hasn’t yet come to the realization that he doesn’t have ‘it’ anymore, and there’s a lot joy in watching the humiliation of arrogance.”

Pillowman. Photo by Craig Hostetler

The Pillowman
June 28-July 20
SpringHouse Ministry Center, 610 W. 28th St., Minneapolis

When do depictions of violence go too far? And should we really give such depictions a pass in the name of free speech and expression? These are charged and juicy questions. But censorship is as slippery a slope as there is and one can’t deny that it is rearing it has been rearing its ugly head over the past few years with the czars of social media platforms deciding who gets to be heard and who does not. After all, who are these ubiquitously powerful power brokers to be the one’s to decide what’s too violent and what’s not?

Therefore, reviving Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman in 2019 strikes a different part of the nervous system than that which it did when it premiered in 2003. What has been deemed offensive by the arbiters of taste and information is different in tone and content than what was the case over 15 years ago. However, then, like now, the interpretation of what’s offensive or not is something you can wrestle with as you watch the Theatre Coup d’Etat revival.

Director Rich Remedios relates that “one if the many themes of the play is the tension between free speech and censorship—the potential power of art and storytelling to inspire hope as well as violence. Is the artist representing the violent world he sees or is he inspiring the world to act in his violently creative representations?”

James Napoleon Stone plays a major Pillowman role: Ariel, a detective who some won’t be too keen on. Stone has also given dynamic performances in productions of Bent, Miss Julie, and Rat in the Skull, three plays renowned for their dark unsettling content. The term fearless is tossed around too much these days in describing actors, but Stone is that. He probes masculinity with a scrupulous open-minded approach that is dangerous in today’s society.

The actor muses in the comparison of two McDonagh characters with one another. He says the playwright “is adept at creating brutish yet complex characters, such as Padraic in The Lieutenant of Inishmore. While they may have seemingly outrageous emotions, the characters’ wants and needs are grounded in something we can identify with. Passaic loves his cat. Ariel is rageful against child abusers. Both have an intensity in their pursuit of what they want and need in any given scene, and while Padraic may have thrown his objectivity out the window in his decision-making process, I think its a more engaging choice with Ariel to watch him struggle with maintaining the objectivity necessary to do his job against the rage that is so deeply seeded within him. Maintaining a conventional, often expected behavior in our day-to-day lives against our primary nature is something we can all identify with, and I think the brilliance of McDonagh can be seen in the creation of these kind of characters.”

Spring Awakening. Photo by JHinz Design and Photo

Spring Awakening
June 7-30
Gremlin Theatre, 550 Vandalia St., St. Paul

If there’s a queer classic to see for Pride Month, it’s this one. Spring Awakening: A Children’s Tragedy blew the lid off world theater as a drama by Frank Wedekin. It outraged the censorship brigade when it was first produced in Berlin in 1906 and 11 years later in New York. However, times had clearly changed when the rock musical version won eight Tony Awards for its Broadway smash production. Chameleon Theatre Circle, no stranger to well-done queer-oriented productions, revives the Sheik & Sater high-octane sensation.

The original controversy was about Spring Awakening’s bold depiction of children having sexual feelings and being suffocated by institutional shame at the turn of the last century. It deals with erotic desire, rape, and the suppression of homosexuality. These were taboo enough when discussed about adults, but children? Unthinkable! Chameleon is also adding a trans-conscious aspect into its conceptualization playing on stage at the Gremlin Theatre. Some of the artists have shared comments with Lavender‘s Spotlight about their deep connection to the musical and the text, and to the evolution of that text.

Director Jay Gilman points out, “We didn’t set out to cast a trans actor in the role of Moritz, but Hal (Henry Ellen Sansone) is a truly gifted performer and I absolutely wanted him to be in our production. Now that we’ve cast Hal, we are unpacking together how powerfully this choice fits the play’s framings. Featuring Hal underlines how the social norms of the play are hurtful and harmful to all people across the gender spectrum, particularly so for trans, nonbinary, and queer folks in the play. It’s not just Moritz who suffers because of a lack of open-mindedness. All of the young people are squeezed and scarred through oppressive, inequitable, rigid, and binary norms. In our own society today, we’re grappling precisely with these same issues, and this play is needed as much today as ever.”

Henry Ellen Sansone, a.k.a. Hal, who plays Moritz: “Moritz has resonated with me since I discovered Spring Awakening as a teenager. There was this ‘something’ about Moritz that I recognized in myself: a boy who didn’t fit neatly into the world constructed around him and couldn’t quite seem to understand why. Moritz is not traditionally played as a transgender character, but in playing Moritz, I recognized this ‘something’, this alignment with parts of my own understanding about being trans, such as existing in an ‘in-between’ space, living in questions, and being in constant movement. Unfortunately, Moritz is not given the support he needs to live in this blurry space. As such, in the play I see the fierce effect (that) not having a space and not seeing yourself can have on any person, but particularly a young trans or queer person.”

Grant Ruckheim, who plays Hanschen: “Hanschen is a complicated character. He’s smart and although he would love to be openly gay, he realizes that he can’t have that and fit into his small 1890s German town. So he learns to play the system, manipulating the men and women around him to get what he wants so he can be accepted by the authority figures around him. So many in the LGBTQ+ community can relate to this. They fit the image that society expects in order to maintain their life while rejecting who they really are. I lied to myself for years before I came out as a gay man. I believed there was something wrong with me because that is what the church I was raised in told me to believe. That is so wrong. I love this show because it embodies the the energy of defiantly challenging authority. I wish we could channel that energy into every child being told there is something wrong with them.”

Chris Sanchez Carrera, who plays Ernst: “For me, playing this role has always been one that I’ve wanted to play and now it’s finally coming true. As I’ve gotten to playing around with little bits of lines that my character Ernst has, it makes me see how similar we are in some ways. I see Ernst as a confused boy who is struggling to understand what his sexuality is. There is one solo line I sing that says ‘God, my whole life’s like some test’, which, in a way, sums up that frustration that my character is feeling in that song and his life. Throughout the show he discovers himself, especially in the song Word of Your Body Reprise when he has his (probably) first kiss with Hanschen. In my eyes, he sees a new light and understands a little better his sexuality. Personally this role means so much to me because I was able to identify with him when I had to do my own coming out. It helped me to become the person I am today and be proud of it.”

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