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Unlike a Baptist?

Growing Up Gay in the Heart of the Bible Belt

SHEETS MUSIC: Andrew Syropoulos (right) puts his hands on Tony Viglione’s hard body.

By Josephine Yun | Posted 6/14/2006

Southern Baptist Sissies

By Del Shores

At Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre through July 1

Do you know your B-I-B-L-E? Have you accepted Jesus as your personal savior? Either way, come one, come all to Southern Baptist Sissies. Written by Del Shores (Dharma and Greg, Queer as Folk), Sissies is a play about gays, love, and God—remember, God is love—that welds together zealous rhetoric with spectacular drag performances. And the Spotlighters company is devoted and devout in this tragicomedy of growing up “different” in Texas.

A flashback starts the play: Gay teenagers Mark Lee Fuller (Tony Viglione), Andrew Thomas Ford (Andrew Syropoulos), Benny Watson (David C. Allen), and T.J. Brooks (Alex Peri) sing hymns at Calvary Baptist Church in Dallas, but Mark begins shouting sarcastically over the preacher (John Sadowsky), before causing the retrospect to freeze by launching into a present-day monologue. “This is where we learned to hate ourselves,” Mark explains. The scene then switches to the Village Station, a gay nightclub where the mysterious and straight blonde Odette Annette Barnett (Tammy Kugler) meets brunette Preston “Peanut” Leroy (Ed Zarkowski).

The boys evolve between the two time periods, torn between what they feel and what they’ve been taught. Eventually, all four are baptized, but their feelings don’t stop—no matter how much they pray. Mark falls in love with T.J., and Benny’s and Andrew’s mothers (both played by Cathy Shipley) beg the preacher for advice on their sons’ “sissified” behavior. Always thinking, Mark dreams “of a world of acceptance and understanding . . . and love. But I always wake up.”

The Spotlighters’ black-box performance space contains three sets at once: One dark corner sporting silver, spray-painted music notes houses a bar, stools, and a glitter ball. Another area serves as bedroom, with posters and Dallas Cowboys paraphernalia tacked to the wall. A fat wooden cross, mounted on a purple background and backed by a keyboard and music stands, faces both.

Allen shines irreverently as Benny and his alter ego, Iona Traylor, whose lip-synced songs don’t detract from drag-queen fun—boy, can he strut in high heels. Dogged and charismatic, Sadowsky’s preacher is solid, well-meaning, yet closed to biblical debate.

Shipley shifts remarkably from one mother to another, consistently versatile; Zarkowski and Kugler are stellar barflies, bonding over smoke and booze. But driving the play is Viglione’s near-palpable pain, anguish, and anger as Mark. His unrelenting performance, ripe with cynical humor, drew repeated laughter from the audience and, later, quiet tears.

Constantly switching between bits of past and present, Sissies can be chronologically confusing. But its quick, raunchy humor peppers a poignant, senseless, underlying frustration, resulting in a performance both hilarious and painful, giving life to a struggle that anyone who has ever been treated differently—in church or elsewhere—can appreciate.

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