Puszh Company

at Puszh Studios


Razor’s Edge

at Puszh Studios

Q Two, which stands for “Queer Stories II,” is about as diverse an evening as the theater has to offer. Comprised of about two dozen short pieces–stories, dances, poems, and songs–ranging in length from 30 seconds to 10 minutes, this two-hour, two- act, two-years-in-the-making showcase seems to spread in all directions at once, unified only by the fact that all the authors represented are gay.

Such variety is touted in the show’s press release as the hallmark of the gay community’s strength: “Rarely do we have an opportunity to see this diversity that represents the gay and lesbian community on stage.” But if queer art, as reflected in this production, can encompass nearly anything created by a gay or lesbian artist, does such a category mean anything at all?

Maybe that question is beyond the scope of this review, but it seems reasonable to use this production to examine the nature and quality of queer art in Chicago. What are its central concerns? How does it relate to the larger culture? And ultimately, if this body of work claims to represent the gay and lesbian community, who are gays and lesbians?

The most common thematic concern in these works is love and romance, the very things that historically have been withheld from gays and lesbians. (Then again, these themes are also the most common among heterosexual artists.) Insecurity, abandonment, and isolation are recurring motifs. In Cindy Caruso’s delightful “Some Love,” two women sitting in a lesbian bar forge an intimate friendship based on people they both hate. When one moves to a different city for no particular reason, the other is left stranded and alone. In Reader critic Achy Obejas’s pointed “The Measure of Grace,” the narrator’s ex-lover, with whom she is still achingly in love, shows up in the middle of the night to tell her all about a new tortured love affair. In Nicholas Patricca’s eloquent “Frankie,” a young man ruminates on the unacknowledged AIDS death of a gay next-door neighbor and childhood acquaintance.

The pieces about more successful romances fall flat. Allison J. Nichol’s poem “Lessons” uses a dance lesson as a rather cliched metaphor for love. Then she mixes metaphors entirely: as one woman learns to dance, the other learns “to swim in the deep end.” David Puszh’s two-couple dances “Just Affairs” and “Short Dance #2” create predictable relationship histories through a series of stock gestures.

Set precisely in the middle of each act are two emotionally charged pieces concerning childhood scars. In Gregg Shapiro’s poem “Shooting Baskets,” the speaker chokes back a sob, wishing his father had told him he was proud of him. In Eric Lane Barnes’s confessional ballad “Goodbye G.I. Joe,” the singer chokes back several sobs, realizing that shame over early sexual experiences with his brother has left him unable to feel anything. These pieces form the emotional fulcrum of their respective acts. Unfortunately, they also suffer from overwrought sentimentalism.

On one level, then, queer art, at least according to this production, is closely identified with emotional trauma. Here a queer sensibility is a deeply wounded, self-pitying one. This is especially true in the finale, Barnes’s song “Welcome Home,” during which the entire cast sings “Everything is going to be all right” while staring compassionately across the stage at one another, offering occasional supportive hugs.

The works in Q Two are almost all contained exclusively within a gay psychology and iconography, ignoring both history and gay-straight interaction. The single exception is Nichol’s “Fireworks in the Suburbs,” in which a woman brings her lover home to meet the family for the first time. But the family is reduced to Italian accents and disapproving stares, and the focus remains on the emotional struggle of the lesbian characters.

Certainly I am not suggesting that gay art has to include or address a straight world in order to be good. But the most successful piece of the evening, Barnes’s disarmingly clever and insightful song entitled “God Hates Fags,” uses a gay sensibility to open a window onto a much larger world. In a campy send-up of right-wing extremism, an archetypal church lady sings, “God hates queers / They stick their weenies in each other’s rears,” while two accompanying choir boys behind her exchange flirtatious looks. Granted, religious fundamentalism is an easy target. But Barnes homes in on the more psychologically complex issue of erotic hypocrisy. The church lady catalogs a diverse spectrum of gay acts and attributes that God abhors. If this woman is so repulsed by gay life, why does she expend so much energy chronicling its sordid details?

Barnes also portrays homophobia within the church as part of a larger pattern that pervades American society: our pathological need to hate “the other.” The church lady rails against Iraqis in the same breath as she denounces gays. In the last verse she sings, “God hates you / Unless you think exactly as I do. . . . And it can’t hurt to throw in a Jew or two.” “God Hates Fags” combines fine artistry with a breadth of vision that seems lacking in most of the other pieces.

Judging from Q Two, the answer to the question “Who are gays and lesbians?” is a simple and obvious one: gays and lesbians are anybody and everybody. But this answer just brings me back to my original question: what is the usefulness of separating queer art from the mainstream? Given the fact that Tony Kushner’s Angels in America (subtitled “A Gay Fantasia on National Themes”) is the hottest play on Broadway, couldn’t it be time for us to accept the fact that we are in the mainstream?

The benchmarks of a certain gay male sensibility–drag queens and Hollywood leading ladies–combine to form the backbone of the Razor’s Edge production of Hollywood. Bette Davis (Brian-Mark Conover) and Tallulah Bankhead (Edwin Wald) have crash-landed in the Amazon jungle, along with hunky, perennially bare-chested pilot Jack Armstrong (Greg Eldridge) and aspiring sexpot Faith Forrest (Laurie Dawn). While Armstrong goes off in search of help, the two divas exchange endless bitchy barbs and the neophyte acts helpless.

Playwright Max Pearson captures the campy essences of these mythic Hollywood figures, but his play isn’t bold enough for them. The plane-crash premise seems rife with possibilities, but Davis and Bankhead spend almost the entire play trading insults and telling stories of Hollywood deals. Very little moves this play forward, and after 20 minutes all of its trump cards have been played. The kind of potboiler plot that typified Hollywood in the Davis-Bankhead era is sorely needed. Conover and Wald are engaging performers, but without a star vehicle they seem lost.

The evening is further hampered by director James M. Schneider’s staging; he places his actors as far from one another as they can be, which prevents any chemistry from developing. In addition, actors often engage in bits of stage business while dialogue is passed back and forth, making it difficult to know what to pay more attention to.