Poked and Growing Up Butch

Second City E.T.C.

This summer, controversies about gay and lesbian civil rights have exploded. Same-sex marriage was legalized in the province of Ontario, New Hampshire Episcopalians selected an openly gay bishop for the first time, and in a landmark case, Lawrence v. Texas, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that gays and lesbians have a right to privacy in the bedroom, effectively legalizing sodomy in all 50 states.

GayCo Productions, a gay- and lesbian-themed comedy troupe, has taken the latter as the theme of its latest show, being presented as part of the “alternative comedy” series Second City Unhinged. Poked is in large part a celebration of anal sex. The show opens with an announcement that “this salute to sodomy is sponsored by Wesson Oil,” and when the ensemble comes out to do a song and dance parodying Broadway favorites like The Lion King, Mamma Mia!, and Chicago, the lyrics are strewn with anal-sex euphemisms: “Put your hot dog in my bun,” “Shoot me with your backdoor gun.” There’s even a dancing sphincter.

Believe it or not, this is funny. Actually, under the direction of Jim Zulevic, all the best sketches in Poked are sexual–not surprising since GayCo’s forte is personal rather than political comedy. In one of the best bits, Andy Eninger, John Bonny, and Tim Sniffen sing sadly about the perils of polyamory while huddled together in bed, making light of a situation that even the gay community tends not to talk much about.

Not every sketch concerns sex. Others touch on the Iraq war; Ashcroft’s continuing curtailment of civil liberties; kinder, gentler Canadians; and the Bush administration’s hypocrisy when it comes to gay and lesbian rights, best illustrated when a member of the gay Log Cabin Republicans talks to Dick Cheney about the impending same-sex marriage of his daughter, Mary.

Perhaps as a result of such variety, the show doesn’t feel cohesive. It’s gag and joke heavy instead of being thoughtful and incisive. The sketches have an unfinished quality, and the ensemble alternately rushes them and drags them out; sometimes the players seem uncertain of when to end. In one scene two lesbians (Butch Jerinic and Celeste Pechous) argue about whether one of them looks good in chaps that expose her rear. Each time she turns around to shake her booty, one of the men brings out a large picture of a different butt–including one with hemorrhoids. It’s funny at first, but by the fifth picture the joke has worn thin.

In fact, this is one of the weakest GayCo revues I’ve seen. Maybe the company’s overwhelmed with a surfeit of usable material. Or, more troubling for GayCo’s future, perhaps the problem is that gays and lesbians are becoming ever more mainstream, little by little losing their outsider status. There are fewer in-jokes now because–well, gays and lesbians are becoming a lot like everyone else.

The revue’s most humorous sketch returns to GayCo’s strength, relationships, and manages to be both universal–who hasn’t juggled an ex with a current partner?–and particular to lesbians: the three women characters engage in a lot of therapy speak and do a lot of processing. Jerinic and Pechous play a new couple celebrating Jerinic’s character’s birthday at a restaurant. They’ve also invited the birthday girl’s ex-partner (the consistently excellent Mary Beth Burns), who arrives with her teddy bear companion, Theodora. The three–four?–of them try to get through dinner without offending one another, which becomes harder and harder as Theodora assumes an increasingly prominent and ridiculous role in the conversation.

This practically perfect sketch is both biting and affectionate–terms that also describe the other half of the bill, Jerinic’s well conceived and executed autobiographical solo show, Growing Up Butch. She was the only one of three children in a Croatian immigrant family who turned out to be straight. Still, she was nicknamed “Butch” almost at birth–because her uncle thought she wasn’t pretty enough to be called by her real name, Kathy, and her newly arrived parents didn’t understand the nuances of American slang. “The only people who call me by my real name are Visa and MasterCard,” Jerinic says.

Jerinic alternates monologues punctuated by one-liners, like stand-up comedy, with sketches in which she plays both herself and her family members. The monologues are funny but slightly stiff while the sketches are hilarious, sharply observed, and fresh, providing an unusual perspective on gays and lesbians: that of a straight child in a mostly gay environment. A slide show of the young Butch and her family helps us visualize her characters, and she distinguishes between them with an array of mannerisms: her mother is a fidgety chain-smoker, her slightly fey brother is melodramatic, her sister is defensive and uses the strong hand gestures familiar to lesbians everywhere.

Apparently Jerinic had no trouble accepting the sexuality of her lesbian sister, Dina, and her gay brother, Michael, who’s living with HIV–though she is a bit disappointed when the guests at her first college party, given by her sister, all turn out to be lesbians. Within the family her role is to negotiate between her siblings and her slightly bewildered but good-natured straight parents, and between her siblings and her not-so-understanding other relatives. When a viperish in-law asks Jerinic pointedly whether she doesn’t think that her siblings are wrong, she replies, “They’re not wrong, they’re gay!” Jerinic adds, “My brother taught me to wear makeup, and my sister taught me how to dribble a basketball with both hands.”

Jerinic allows straight folks to get an insider’s view of a gay family and gay ones to see themselves from the perspective of a loving outsider. But Growing Up Butch has larger ramifications as well. As the gay community becomes steadily more assimilated, shows like the GayCo revues may well pass into irrelevancy, as the larger community begins to break down into smaller, less established subgroups.

A Poked sketch about speed dating hints at this. The four women in the ensemble (which also includes Judy Fabjance) play a variety of people who eliminate most of their potential dates because they don’t fall into the appropriate category. The sketch gets at the multiple ways lesbians (and by extension gay men) now define themselves, from androgynous “bois” to old guard feminists to earth mothers to leather women. As the gay identity becomes better accepted–as being gay becomes more of a statement of fact than of culture–subidentities grow more important, allowing people to feel part of a group.

In the future, if and when gays and lesbians have full civil rights, there may no longer be a need for tales about the community as a whole. But there will always be a need for the well-told stories of individuals, like Growing Up Butch.