at Victory Gardens Theater
The Secret of the Old Queen
Stage Left Theatre
at the Theatre Building
By Albert Williams
As a native of Littleton, Colorado, I’ve watched with grim fascination as my formerly unknown, once semirural hometown has become an international symbol of youthful alienation and social dysfunction in the suburbs. What the massacre at Columbine High School makes me wonder, however, isn’t why such things happen but why they don’t happen more often. Because we’re driving our kids crazy.
Adolescence, by nature a time of confusion and crisis, now more than ever takes place in a maelstrom of media images that purport to help kids find their way while really cluttering up their paths. Torn between the desire for power and independence and the need for approval and belonging, teenagers are forever on the lookout for role models; the movies and TV shows aimed at them, which busy adults tend to dismiss as escapist entertainment, represent an alternate universe in which potential personalities can be tried on and discarded. Out of this barrage of often conflicting fantasies, young people seek a unique sense of themselves. Yet every new generation finds its role models more and more inauthentic, as popular culture becomes less and less of the people and more and more controlled by marketers and merchandisers. Even the hippest hero figures today are simply vehicles for sales pitches, as advertisers craftily stoke young viewers’ insecurities and desires, making them desperate for the coolest cars, clothes, cigarettes, and CDs. The Columbine shooting spree has politicians and pundits wrangling over sex and violence in movies and TV, but policy makers dependent on media monopolies won’t address the deeper issue–inundating impressionable kids with muddled, manipulative messages about who they are and how they should behave.
Stupid Kids, the latest effort by the ever adventurous Roadworks Productions, dramatizes teen identity crises by focusing on four contemporary 17-year-old outcasts trapped in the suburban sterility of one Joseph McCarthy High School. Struggling to create authentic personalities, they find themselves turning into mere reflections of earlier generations’ rebellious role models–specifically, 50s icons James Dean, Natalie Wood, and Sal Mineo in the film Rebel Without a Cause. Playwright John C. Russell, who died of AIDS complications in 1994 at the age of 31, took this 1955 film as his primary inspiration, perhaps because its once shocking depiction of gun-wielding middle-class “juvenile delinquents” seemed simultaneously innocent and prescient.
Russell’s play was premiered off-Broadway last year through the efforts of New York director Michael Mayer (known here for his staging of Angels in America at the Royal George) and is now receiving its first non-New York production in the snug first-floor studio at Victory Gardens Theater. Appropriating character names, situations, and even dialogue from Nicholas Ray and Stewart Stern’s Rebel Without a Cause, it features a quartet of misfits: Jim Stark (the name of James Dean’s character), a handsome, troubled new boy in town; pert, pretty Judy (named after Natalie Wood’s character), girlfriend of a high school hotshot; Neechee, a would-be poet who takes his nickname from Nietzsche (the part parallels Mineo’s character, the disturbed intellectual Plato); and Kimberly, Russell’s most original contribution, an awkward tomboy in butch haircut and dog collar, named for the kid sister of her idol, 70s punk rocker Patti Smith. Initially thrown together after being busted by police for rowdy late-night partying, the four form a close-knit clique in solidarity against the cool crowd, led by Judy’s boyfriend Buzz (whom we never see, unlike in the film).
Jim and Judy are drawn together by unbridled lust (“I’ve worked hard to get really good skin,” says Judy. “I deserve to screw somebody”), setting the stage for a tribal showdown between Jim and Buzz–though the test in Russell’s play is both more and less dangerous than the deadly car race in the movie. Neechee and Kimberly are bonded by their artistic impulses (they collaborate on bad beat poetry and a video documentary) and by unrequited infatuations–Neechee’s with Jim and Kim’s with Judy. Accurately portraying the intense cross-gender friendships that queer girls and boys often develop before they’ve acknowledged their homosexuality to themselves, Stupid Kids expands on the unacknowledged subtext of its cinematic inspiration: the secret “cause” in Rebel Without a Cause is the doomed Plato’s passion for Jim.
A brisk work that runs about 80 minutes without intermission, Stupid Kids captures the cacophony of teen life under Shade Murray’s direction by fleshing out Russell’s rather slight script with music-video-like numbers. These blend Birgitta Victorson’s stiff, quirky choreography with Logan Kibens’s videos, seen on several small TVs scattered about the stage–quick crosscut collages of photos and film clips featuring teen idols from Marlon Brando in The Wild One to Adam West and Burt Ward in the 60s TV series Batman, though images of Dean, Wood, and Mineo dominate. Geoffrey M. Curley’s set, a hive of stacked metal lockers and tiled toilets, depicts the high school limbo in which the young characters spend their days, sharing cigarettes in the john or exchanging snatches of conversation on the run between classes, clumsily trying to find something new and special–something of their own–as they negotiate classic journeys through puppy love, same-sex friendship, and peer pressure. Stupid Kids makes these familiar paths seem strangely worn, endlessly repeated in the popular culture of preceding generations. The wan sense of apathy that results undercuts any hint of hope in Neechee’s confused credo: “I’m so mad I could shoot someone. But I can’t cuz I’ll go to prison. And I need to stay in society so I can change things.”
Murray’s staging sets up an intriguing interplay between the script’s light tone and dark subjects, thanks largely to kinetic, caring performances by a talented cast. Armando Riesco’s taut, sinewy Jim embodies a young male caught between conflicting pressures to be both macho and sensitive; Natalie Wood look-alike Joey Honsa is Judy, driven by restless urges she doesn’t understand to reject the easy path of conformity; Halena Kays is the squat, punkish Kimberly, a passionate idealist despite the cynical attitude she adopts; and bucktoothed, boyish Ned Noyes is Neechee, the misunderstood misfit who confuses being different with being dangerous, hiding his loneliness under a smug, cooler-than-cool veneer of superiority.
The Secret of the Old Queen also explores issues of identity by reexamining 50s teen icons from a queer perspective. But Timothy Cope and Paul Boesing’s campy musical makes its points through parody rather than appropriation, taking as its heroes the crime-busting Hardy Boys, both spoofing their cornball image and mining it for subversive sexual humor.
Of course the Hardy Boys predate Rebel Without a Cause by almost 30 years: they made their debut in 1927 in The Tower Treasure, the first of many children’s books the Stratemeyer Syndicate assembly line churned out. But the characters achieved their greatest popularity in the 50s, as millions of baby boomers learned to read by following the stories from one cliff-hanging chapter to the next. And it was in the 50s that Tim Considine and Tommy Kirk brought the Hardys to life on-screen in serialized episodes on Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse Club. Well-behaved Frank and Joe Hardy may seem the polar opposites of the troubled teens in Rebel, but they actually embodied the same all-American values of self-reliance and brotherly bonding as they went about cleaning up the messes made by crooked grown-ups in mythical Bayport, USA.
In Stage Left Theatre’s remounting of its 1996 hit, the Hardy Boys attempt to solve a rash of crimes committed against Bayport’s “bachelor elite” (art dealers, interior decorators, ballet choreographers), which culminates with the theft of a valuable sculpture known as the Macedonian Cigar. Neither the Hardys nor anyone else seems to notice that this statue (nicknamed “the Greek Butt”) is a monstrous phallus decorated with a lambda, the international gay-rights symbol. But that’s the way it is in idyllic out-of-touch Bayport, where (as the Hardys sing) “Withdrawals don’t exceed deposits, nothing hidden in our closets… / Girls are girls and boys are boys… / And the thunder makes no noise.” In the course of the boys’ search, we meet their family and friends, including rugged, pipe-smoking detective dad Fenton, fussy Aunt Gertrude, virtuous girlfriends Callie and Iola, and chubby chum Chet Morton, whose mysterious disappearance prompts the Hardys to investigate “the old queen” of the title–Chet’s vintage roadster, which does indeed contain a secret. Seeking to return the Macedonian Cigar to its rightful owner, “wealthy unmarried gentleman” Cornelius Digby, doesn’t keep the characters from performing a slew of irrelevant musical numbers, including an ode to men in uniform led by a tap-dancing Coast Guard captain and “The Drag,” a genteel, oddly haunting rag number led by a mysterious matron named Electra Carstairs at a cross-dressing costume ball.
Songwriter Boesing’s perky style is reminiscent of another team of siblings, Richard and Robert Sherman, who composed for the Disney studio’s movies and TV shows in the 1950s and ’60s. Boesing’s score may not be great art, but it’s fun and surprisingly memorable. Also fun is Cope’s script, with its corny cliches and mischievous double entendres about cruising and coming out, going down and rising to the occasion. Director Sandra Verthein amplifies the material with plenty of sight gags (a couple of them involving bananas and corncobs) and other clever visual touches. The Hardys sing their first song hanging from harnesses in a children’s theater-style depiction of a parachute jump; and Robert G. Smith’s set consists mainly of blown-up black-and-white illustrations like those in the old Hardy Boys books, symbolizing such key locations as “Ghost Island,” “the Morton farm,” and “a convenient rock.”
Stage Left presented the show’s world premiere three years ago in its tiny storefront space. Now running in the much larger Theatre Building, this production doesn’t have the same raggedy innocence; everything seems a bit bigger, a bit louder, and a little too obvious. And while David Tibble and Cory James as Frank and Joe are solid enough–as is the supporting cast, notably Larry Dahlke and Jennifer Bradley as Digby and Mrs. Carstairs–they need to create a stronger sense of emotional connection between the siblings. That may come with time. Meanwhile, like Famous Door Theatre’s gay teen romance Beautiful Thing in the same space last year, this lighthearted, sweet-natured romp could become a gay crossover hit.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Drew Martin.