Sunday, Feb. 8, 2009

Spiral Theatre's Torch Song Trilogy

By Russ Bickerstaff
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Brian Hagen

The space beneath Plymouth Church is has a warm coziness to it. A number of folding chairs face a deliberately drab set. Set, lighting and costuming leave little to distract from the actors. These are the trappings of Spiral Theatre’s production of Torch Song Trilogy. Any production of the classic 1980’s comic drama is going to be very ambitious. Playwright Harvey Fierstein wrote a lengthy epic caught somewhere in time between the birth of the gay rights movement and public acknowledgement of the outbreak of AIDS. The play follows a few years in the life of Arnold—a professional drag queen who falls in love and into a doomed relationship with a bi-sexual man in the first act. The second act follows his life years later with a new man as he and his current boyfriend invited to his ex-boyfriend’s place in the country by his new girlfriend. Things happen that probably shouldn’t. The final act follows Arnold’s life years later as he is raising an adoptive gay high school student during a particularly stressful visit from his mother.

The trilogy of the title describes the three separate acts from three separate points in Harvey’s life. Fierstein could have expanded any one of these acts into a full-length play. There’s more than enough material in any one of the three chapters of Arnold’s life to make for a satisfying standalone play. The first two parts had debuted as individual pieces in the late ‘70’s. Played straight through, the entire trilogy runs well over four hours. Spiral Theatre’s Mark Hooker has done an admirable job of staging an abridged version of the trilogy that runs a much leaner 3 hours when intermission, opening curtain and final bows are included. The edit, which was done with the permission of Fierstein, makes for a more digestible evening of theatre that only feels a bit rushed in places. The story can feel particularly disjointed when making the transition from one act to the next. At the beginning of those moments that start another period in Arnold’s life, new characters are introduced and there’s a whole different social dynamic flowing across the stage. The ensemble builds-up enough emotional momentum to keep things suitably captivating even in those brief moments of confusion as to what’s going on with Arnold as years have apparently passed since the last scene.

Mark Hagen, also known to some people as Dear Miss Ruthie, plays Arnold. Hagen plays wonderfully to the center of the stage. The role, originally written for the gravelly-voiced playwright, features a few references to his vocal quality. Without doing an outright impression of Fierstein, Hagen has created a voice and physical grace for the character more specific to himself that nonetheless manages to pay some homage to the play’s creator. The placement of the acts over a series of years poses some challenge for Hagen. It must be tremendously difficult to craft a complex portrayal of a character subtle enough to show the gradual changes in his personality from one year to the next. While the performance isn’t quite that detailed, Hagen performs with an energy that seems to come from a very genuine emotional space.

Brian Richards plays Arnold’s intermittent bi-sexual boyfriend Ed. Richards’ nice guy stage presence lends the character a great deal of likeability in spite of some of the less than nice things he sometimes does. It’s a thoughtful, sympathetic portrayal of someone lost and seeking how to define himself sexually. He and Hagen have very textured interactions onstage, which is interesting when one considers that the meeting of the two characters is played out entirely in a monologue performed by Richards.

Other notable performances include a bright, energetic Kelly Simon as Laurel—Ed’s girlfriend in the second act, a cleverly idiosyncratic performance by Jordan Gwiazdowski as Arnold’s other boyfriend Alan.

The darkness of the set and many of the costumes are interesting—the idea of visually presenting these characters in a kind of an ominous setting, graphically showing people living on the fringes of society—is a compelling idea that could be more effectively explored in a bigger-budgeted production in a larger space. Hooker’s set wasn’t quite enough to live up to the vision. This is a minor detail in a production that has much to offer with compelling performances by Richards and Hagen its center.

Spiral Theatre’s production of Torch Song Trilogy runs through February 15th in the basemen of the Plymouth Church on 2717 East Hampshire.
   

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