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Torch Song Trilogy
Jun 18, 2010 - Jun 27, 2010
Torch Song Trilogy
By Harvey Fierstein
Central Iowa Premiere Production
DATES June 18-27, 2010
A landmark play in contemporary American theatre. “Torch Song Trilogy” is the story of Arnold Beckoff, a gay man in the 1970s, searching for love, self-respect, parenthood and the importance of family … universal themes in a remarkable journey, more timely than ever. This groundbreaking comedy/drama played more than 1,200 performances on Broadway – and now it’s Des Moines’ turn to experience this unforgettable and enlightening theatre event.
Arnold Beckoff – Brad Dell
Ed Reiss – Scott Siepker
Lady Blues – Matt Oleson
Laurel – Amanda Mullen
Alan – Jacob Wittenauer
David – Tyler Lubinus
Mrs. Beckoff – Stacy Brothers
Director – Todd Buchacker
Music Director – Ben Hagen
Stage Manager – Brian Cornell
Set Designer – Jay Jagim
Costume Designer – Doris Nash
Props Designer – Joy Kripal
Light Designer – Jim Trenberth
Dramaturge – Nancy Evans
Sound Design – Casey Gradischnig
EPIC ‘TORCH SONG’ IS MAJESTIC MARATHON
by John Busbee
StageWest Theatre Company closes its current season with a rousing, robust epic production, Torch Song Trilogy. This is the creative equivalent of a triathalon, as this trio of one-acts runs almost four hours, with two intermissions. However, forewarned is forearmed, and StageWest’s season-ending production puts an emphatic exclamation mark on a stellar year, so prepare yourself to enjoy every moment of this delectable production.
Torch Song Trilogy is the landmark, semi-autobiographical late 1970s work by Harvey Fierstein, winning two Tony Awards for Best Play and Best Actor in a Play (Fierstein). Arnold Beckoff (played with irresistible flair by Brad Dell), Fierstein’s alter-ego protagonist, anchors the action in three distinctive acts, each a mile marker in his life. Following an opening monologue which reveals his cynical view of love, Arnold experiences a new level of romantic frustration with Ed Reiss (captured with complex, bisexual contradiction by Scott Siepker) in Act 1, International Stud. Act 2, Fugue in a Nursery, fast forwards a year later after the initial split, finding Arnold in a monogamous relationship with an irrepressibly effervescent Alan (given vibrancy by Jacob Wittenauer), and Ed at emotional crossroads with his now-wife, Laurel (with Amanda Lynn Mullen instilling sultry confidence into the character). Almost five years later, Act 3, Widows and Children First!, finds the relationships stew stirred up, with Arnold, as a now single father, raising gay teenager David (played with street-savvy honesty by Tyler Lubinus), with his former lover Ed crashing on his sofa, and the apocalyptic appearance of his mother, Mrs. Beckoff (given domineering resolve by Stacy Brothers).
Fierstein’s ability to draw everyone into the humanity of his play transcends the story of a gay man seeking love and family. His messages resonate on a much broader spectrum, challenging gay and straight audiences to delve deeper into human nature and foibles. Instilling the broad sweeps of life – loving, living, doubting, seeking affirmation – bring the canopy of family into a much more far-reaching definition, yet, with a common foundation. The audience often finds itself looking into a mirror as scenes unfold, and relationships spin with the fervor and control of a top. Perhaps the greatest element infused in Torch Song Trilogy is its humor, which touches upon every soul who encounters this show.
Siepker’s Ed is persistent, conflicted and believable. Mullen’s Laurel is open, confident yet playful. Wittenauer brings an Adonis aura to an innocent, yet worldy, Alan. Lubinus captures a youthful infallibility coupled with his total acceptance of being gay in his David. With frightening, steelish resolve, Brothers embodies an unyielding, moralistic maternal spirit, giving a powerful counterpart to Arnold. And, in a tour de force performance, Dell walks the difficult line of capturing the essence of Arnold without mimicking Fierstein. He openly shows his passion as he strives to live an old-fashioned world of love and family in a new world. Dell achieves palpable bonds with the audience, channeling the humor, affection, conflict, and, most importantly, the humanity of his role, giving us a wonderful “take away” message.
Director Todd Buchacker delivers a crisp, compelling staging of his exceptionally talented cast. He moves the action along, making this marathon production something to savor rather than endure. Lady Blues (given drag queen flamboyance with a powerful singing voice by Matt Oleson) is a somewhat enigmatic muse tying parts of Act 1 together, and gives a rich, saucy performance. Music Director Ben Hagen brings his usual deft touch to the show’s music. Costume Designer Doris Nash brings a nice late-1970s flair to the show, and the only fault with the makeup/hair work by Cindy Hummel was Mullen’s hairdo covering too much of her expressive eyes and face.
Jay Michael Jagim earns special kudos for an incredibly creative scenic design for Torch Song Trilogy. The Stoner Studio space is not a welcoming environment for scenic designers, yet Jagim achieves an excellence which again demonstrates his superb design mind. The patterned upstage wall, with “FAMILY” boldly painted across it, contains a pop-out, cavity-revealing and incredible set upon which Buchacker efficiently propels his actors.
There were some unfortunate sound and lighting miscues, sometimes leaving the key actor out of light, or errant sound cues. However, these minor gaffes are quickly overshadowed by the excellence of this production. This is a destination production, not to be missed, and one that will leave each cultural adventurer attending it a much better, much wiser person. Torch Song Trilogy runs through June 27 at the Civic Center’s Stoner Theatre.
“TORCH SONG TRILOGY” HIGHLIGHTS COMPLEXITIES OF LGBT ISSUES
By Mark Turnage, The Examiner
When the drag entertainer Virginia Hamm gets ready to perform, she does so with all the cattiness and zeal of a showstopping diva. When she disrobes, however, the vulnerabilities of her alter ego, Arnold Beckoff, begin to surface, and we are quickly brought into the not-so-glamorous, love-is-uncertain world of gay 1970’s New York.
So begins StageWest’s production of “Torch Song Trilogy” at the Des Moines Civic Center’s Stoner Theater, a play which serves as both a window to the past and a mirror to the present, revealing a spectrum of issues that are timeless in relevance and in sexuality: bisexual romantic ties, family approval, and adoption in nontraditional families, to name a few. Brad Dell stars as Arnold Beckoff, a young gay man trying to find his place romantically in 1970s New York. Through his relationships with his lovers, friends, and eventually an adopted son, Arnold endures strife and interpersonal conflict to ultimately discover who and what constitutes his family.
Dell’s standout portrayal of Arnold as a passionate, frustrated, indecisive and desperate man who is both fiercely independent and intrinsically sensitive is a compelling vision of not only his character’s complexity, but also the tumultuous times his character occupies. To better prepare for their roles, Dell explained, StageWest hired a dramaturgist and a voice coach to educate them on 1970s gay culture, the art of high drag entertainers, and 70s-era backroom bars.
Beginning in Manhattan in 1973, “Torch Song Trilogy,” composed of three interconnected plays written by Harvey Fierstein, has a unique placement in the timeline of gay rights: post-1969, when the Stonewall Riots brought gay rights and discrimination into the media spotlight, and pre-1981, when the AIDS epidemic changed the gay community forever. Although the potential to politicize “Trilogy” is unavoidable considering the material of the play, the StageWest cast does a remarkable job in bringing multifaceted nuance and genuine emotional appeal to characters whose struggles reach beyond political boundaries and enter a more familiar, universal area: the human need for love and acceptance.
StageWest’s production prefers minimalist set design and full black-box exposure to its dynamic characters, a plus when considering the pivotal and emotional confrontation scenes that mark the climaxes of each of the three plays. The title itself, “Torch Song Trilogy,” refers to a type of musical number that laments unrequited or lost love.
“A torch song itself is a song of tragedy, and a means to recover from that tragedy,” says Scott Siepker, who plays Ed, Arnold’s bisexual lover. “We all are our own torch songs.”
Although “Trilogy” may run a bit long for those who are less patient (at a little over four hours, with two ten minute intermissions), those who appreciate an involving, realistic, and witty drama on love–raw, messy, changing, uncertain and powerful–will not be disappointed.
The Beginning of a Movement
By Nancy Evans, Dramaturge
The year 1969 was a pivotal year in U.S. history. Movements of the 1960s for social change became more vocal, violent, and angrier, as their issues lingered on without satisfactory solutions. Anti-Vietnam War protests became bigger and more urgent; the moderate civil rights movement shifted to a much more militant Black power movement; and women’s consciousness-raising morphed into radical separatist feminism. Another significant event happened in 1969 – the raid on the gay Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village. While certainly not the first raid by police of a gay bar or the first time gay and lesbian people had fought back against police harassment, the volatility of that particular time in history made this event unique. From it emerged the revolutionary gay and lesbian liberation movement.
In her book, Virtual Equality, Urvashi Vaid, a long-time lesbian activist, noted that the gay and lesbian liberation movement was based on four premises: (1) the idea that gays and lesbians needed to be visible to be free and that coming out was key to this visibility; (2) that gay and lesbian freedom would lead to major changes in the foundations of heterosexual life, including the family; (3) that gay and lesbian liberation needed to also focus on issues such as race, gender, and social class; and (4) that a uniquely gay and lesbian-focused culture was needed in order to enable gay men and lesbians to develop positive identities. In Torch Song Trilogy, Harvey Fierstein’s play of the gay liberation movement, these themes take center stage. Arnold epitomizes the open, out, and proud drag queen for whom being visibly gay is central to his life. Arnold, in confronting Ed about his choice to live a traditional heterosexual life by marrying Laurel and later adopting and parenting David, is making a statement about the legitimacy of alternative family lifestyles and gender roles. While not a main point in the play, social class issues play a role in Arnold’s interactions with Ed and Laurel, who are clearly embedded in their middle class, suburban existence. Finally, Arnold’s engagement in the world of drag and gay bars highlights the role of gay culture in the development of gay identity.
Prior to the 1970s, gay characters in drama were generally self-hating or tragic, as in The Madness of Lady Bright, Lanford Wilson’s 1964 play about a disturbed drag queen who kills herself, Matt Crowley’s Boys in the Band (1968), in which six stereotypical and self-deprecating gay men gather to “celebrate” a birthday, and Martin Sherman’s Bent (1969), about a tragic gay hero in Nazi Germany. Torch Song Trilogy, then, which opened at the Actor’s Playhouse in Greenwich Village on January 15, 1982 and moved to Broadway on June 10, 1982 where it played for 1222 performances, introduced a contrasting gay character, one who was secure in himself and willing to stand up for his lifestyle. In his review of the play in The Advocate, gay playwright and actor Charles Busch wrote, “At the height of the post-Stonewall…era, Harvey [Fierstein] challenged both gay and straight audiences to champion an effeminate gay man’s longing for love and family.” In doing so, Torch Song Trilogy became the first gay play to achieve mainstream success, winning both Drama Desk and Tony awards for best play. It remains one of the few gay plays of the twentieth century positively focused on family and love. As the 1970s ended, the direction of gay theatre shifted to themes of gay life in the age of AIDS. Only recently, with the debut of Geoffrey Nauffts’s Next Fall, have we returned to a true love story in gay drama.