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Weak Musicals Sink Latest Queer Café

Divine Trash: David Shapiro (left) plays the Baltimore drag icon to Rob Gompers' John Waters in one of Queer CafT's misguided musicals.
Lydia Lea Real and Harry Belt Turner in FPCT's Oleanna

By Mike Giuliano | Posted 6/13/2001

Queer Café 2001 and Oleanna

Pussycat Theatre Company and David Mamet

Two of the three mini-plays in the Pussycat Theatre Company's annual Queer Café anthology at Theatre Project are musicals-in-progress. Let's hope they get better as they progress, because neither is very good right now. Nor does it help matters that nobody sings very well. A truth-in-advertising slogan for the evening might be: "We're here, we're queer, but we can't carry a tune."

The marquee attraction among these three queer offerings is a musical titled simply Divine, about the oversized Baltimore superstar who was the equivalent of Elizabeth Taylor in film director John Waters' trash epics. It's either very brave or very foolish to tackle local heroes in their hometown, where many audience members will be in a prime position to nitpick until there isn't much left to salvage from the show.

David Shapiro looks the part of a big drag queen, but one could note that Divine's weight was distributed a bit differently, and Divine had better makeup, a more fascinating tough-yet-tender personality, more . . . well, that's enough. Rob Gompers fares much worse as John Waters, who is taller, wittier, and certainly delivers a line better than Gompers.

What really does in Divine, whose book was written by Jarrin Davis with music and lyrics by Daniel Meyer, isn't that the details are off, but that the premise is so misguided. The play is set during Christmas 1987, only a few months before Divine's death at age 42, and has the star and his director reminiscing about their shared past, wondering about a future in which Divine was slated to play a male role on the TV sitcom Married . . . With Children.

That's actually a promising time and place to situate such a story, but Divine operates under the dubious assumption that in hanging up his dress and donning pants, the hefty star was expressing a need to repudiate his glamour-gal past. "I won't be a freak on the fringe," Shapiro-as-Divine shouts at one point. Equally dubious is the show's assumption that Divine and Waters were acrimoniously moving apart at this time.

Even if the show, at fuller length, was able to make a more persuasive case for itself, it would probably still be hindered by writing that always goes for the most obvious exposition. For instance, Divine's screen and stage credits are conveyed just by listing the titles--surely not the most creative way to bring a career alive. The rumbling sound you hear is Divine turning in his Towson grave.

At least Divine has the grotesque appeal of being a bad show about beloved figures. Pirate Babes has no such fall-back. The basic notion of PS Lorio's musical, inspired by two real-life female swashbucklers, is to have a captain and several sailors engage in sexual activity that's at odds with the storybook version of pirate life. This translates to a woman disguised as a man, a man infatuated with another man, and so on.

Gompers, Joel Mason, Chloe Keller, and Kate Sears give spirited performances, and sometimes the fun they're having is enough to put a smile on your face. But the gender-bending story line is ultimately just an excuse for all-against-all sword fights, and the songs, which aspire to be a gay take on Gilbert and Sullivan, are ruined by pirate accents so thick and enunciation so poor that the lyrics are lost somewhere off the poop deck.

The evening's salvation comes via Susan Mele and Leah Ryan's Just Say Blow Me. A one-woman show performed by Mele, it has more than its attention-grabbing title going for it. Indeed, it has been performed in several other cities over the last few years, and now enjoys its Baltimore premiere. Mele's central character is a no-nonsense hotel maid who has seen a lot of weird human behavior while making her rounds. This character engagingly interacts with the audience, makes observations both funny and pointed, and readily slides into Mele impersonating an array of other obsessively chatty characters. This is the best written and acted of the three plays, and it nearly redeems the evening.

The gay characters in Queer Café 2001 include some confused and troubled souls. For proof that straight people don't have it any easier, consult David Mamet's Oleanna, which is receiving a solid production, directed by Alex Willis, at the Fells Point Corner Theatre.

Mamet's expertly crafted script pits a pompous male college professor on the verge of receiving tenure against a female student on the verge of failing his course. Their intense one-on-one conversations in his office are a textbook example of how even the most seemingly innocuous phrase is subject to a hostile interpretation. She thinks he's guilty of sexual harassment, he thinks she's guilty of overreacting, and what the audience thinks will vary widely from one person to the next.

For that matter, it's possible that one's sympathies may shift as the conversational battle goes along, and it's also possible to feel that anyone hoping for a neatly schematic conclusion will instead be left groping with frustrating ambiguity.

Although Harry Belt Turner needs a more manic edge at times, he does a good job embodying a professor whose smugness is soon worn down by the combination of an argumentative student, a pending tenure decision, and a wife whose badgering phone calls to his office involve buying a house. The college student is played by Lydia Lea Real, who impressively conveys this young woman's mixture of confusion and anger.

Even though Turner and Real have a few slack moments in what should be a continuously tense exchange between teacher and student, they generally work well together. What really carries this production is how beautifully Real alternates between silent glares and furious outbursts. As an actor, she is, ahem, the real deal.

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