Walking the Dead
at the Halsted St. Cafe
By Justin Hayford
Film historian Thomas Waugh contends that “melodrama has…a privileged relationship with gay men, situated as we are, like women, if not outside patriarchal power, in ambiguous and contradictory relationship to it.” For Waugh, “that much-stigmatized genre” stands opposed to “the male genres of effective action and rationality in the outside world, from the western to the whodunit.” Melodramas focus on the emotions and their attendant bodily responses (they’re called tearjerkers for a reason). Bringing us back to the unpredictable, uncontrollable body, which sends patriarchy into a cold sweat, melodrama is ready-made for gay subversion.
Waugh’s look at independent gay filmmakers’ responses to AIDS in his article “Erotic Self-Images in the Gay Male AIDS Melodrama” ably bears out his theory. But even a cursory glance at contemporary gay theater, whether about AIDS or not, shows how ineffectual melodrama can be. Onstage, melodrama often seems less a subversive choice than a default mode, arising more or less by accident. Aiming for high tragedy, romantic pathos, or community empowerment, most gay playwrights–not unlike their straight counterparts–end up with watered-down soap operas or stilted sitcoms. Rather than subversion we get soup.
Playwright Keith Curran has little interest in melodrama, at least in his play Walking the Dead. Like few other contemporary playwrights writing about gay lives, Curran leads with his head rather than his heart, spending more time tinkering with theatrical form than wringing tortured emotions from his characters. Perhaps he realizes that when it comes to unpacking the complexities of gay life, sentimental quasi realism is about as useful as a limp noodle to a locksmith.
Curran’s play centers on Veronica, an open lesbian who undergoes a sex-change operation, then struggles to forge a new identity that will accommodate the needs of her female lover as well as the expectations of her rigidly conservative mother. But rather than simply dramatize her story with a generous helping of misty-memory flashbacks, as one might expect from the current crop of gay playwrights, Curran goes out of his way to complicate matters formally. He brings together six characters whose lives were greatly influenced by Veronica, from her mother to her lover to a filmmaker who shot a documentary on Veronica’s gender transformation. Instead of offering a coherent picture of his protagonist, Curran assembles a group of characters who want to re-create scenes from Veronica’s life, hoping to reassemble a woman who literally reassembled herself. They speak directly to us, letting us know that they will follow a script arranged and edited by Veronica’s lover, Maya. Then they jump in and out of scenes with Veronica, reliving pivotal moments, trying to justify their curious, embarrassing, and sometimes shameful behavior to the audience.
Curran sets himself an admirably difficult agenda in maintaining and orchestrating this metatheatrical approach. And while he avoids preciousness and kitsch, he seems a bit bewildered by his own elaborate conceit. The characters proclaim that they “have to” go through the evening’s “proceedings,” but Curran hasn’t found a way to dramatize that imperative; it’s never clear why these people need to put themselves through so many emotional wringers in front of an audience of strangers. More problematic, Curran can’t account for the presence of the actor who plays Veronica. Since the other characters never suggest that the in-scene Veronica is a surrogate, we can only see her as the “real” Veronica, which contradicts Curran’s tenuous theatrical logic and brings his high artifice crashing down.
Director Jeffrey Hoffman does little to sort things out. The numerous “reenactments” are fully articulated; the characters, who aren’t supposed to be actors, instantly disappear into their scenes, performing as though they’ve had years of theatrical training. Melissa Van Kersen delivers a thoughtful, deeply felt performance as Veronica, but since Hoffman strands her in a blackout at the end of her scenes, her only choice is to schlep offstage and hope that no one notices–even when she’s left slumped in an alley.
Overwriting his play, Curran obfuscates rather than clarifies his story. That’s a shame, because his skill as a wordsmith and scene builder is unmistakable. He has an uncanny knack for capturing psychological and emotional complexities in simple moments. For example, when Veronica–actually, the postop Homer–attends his mother’s wedding dressed in drag and receives, at long last, an approving smile from her, he laments, “I feel like a stranger, and for the first time you recognize me.” More important, Curran resists the impulse to sentimentalize or sensationalize the issue of sex change. Veronica’s efforts to understand her identity are presented with respect and empathy, though the play slyly undermines our culture’s intractable attitudes toward gender, sexuality, and love; wondering if she will lose Maya after the operation, Veronica asks, “Do we only love people who stay the same?”
Curran has two stories, essentially, and focuses on the weaker of them. The characters’ struggle to understand Veronica’s legacy is never half as interesting as Veronica’s struggle to understand herself. I hate to say it, but maybe Curran should have forgotten formal experimentation and written a melodrama after all, specifically the “sub-branch” Waugh calls “romantic melodrama,” which seems tailor-made for Curran’s subject matter: “In the romantic melodrama, the problematic is not so much the crisis within the family, the nuclear family or the alternative surrogate family, as the impediments to the sexual founding of a romantic unit, the family itself.” Dwight Okita pulled off a stunning romantic melodrama a few years ago in his heartbreaking, near-mythic story of impossible love, The Rainy Season. Given Curran’s skill as a writer and his eye for countercultural subversion, he could do Waugh proud too.