On the Townsend

By John Townsend July 30, 2010

Categories: Arts & Culture, Our Scene

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The Mystery of Irma Vep
Through Aug. 1
Jungle Theater
2951 Lyndale Ave. S., Mpls.
(612) 822-7063
www.jungletheater.com

This gloriously camp sensation, with Bradley Greenwald and Steven Epp, originated within a countercultural surge that expanded theatrical crossgender acceptance. Writing his 1984 hit gothic horror spoof for Ridiculous Theatre, Charles Ludlam (1943-1987) coacted with his life partner, Everett Quinton. It beckoned an era of theatrical genderbending that crystallized in the 1990s, and that now permeates nationwide. In 1984, crossdressing was seen as a ghettoized gay stereotype. Since then, out gays have stopped cringing, and the smart straight mainstream gets that crossdressing isn’t necessarily “gay.” To obtain rights to perform Irma Vep, actors must be of the same gender. It shows how a tiny off-Off Broadway production was a vital player in social change.

The Gospel at Colonus
Aug. 5-11
Ordway Center
345 Washington St., St. Paul
(651) 224-4222
www.ordway.org

Jevetta Steele was Lavender’s 2002 Best Musical Actress for Two Queens, One Castle at Mixed Blood Theatre. She’s now in the Ordway’s revival of The Gospel at Colonus. Sprung in the 1980s from New York’s edgy Mabou Mines troupe, this music drama still raises eyebrows, because it reinterprets Sophocles’s Greek tragedy, Oedipus at Colonus, with gospel sounds.

Because I couldn’t consult the Oracle at Delphi about how one religious view reinterprets another cosmic view, I settled for the next best option: Steele.

As Steele shares, “The Gospel at Colonus is about redemption, which is what gospel music is all about. It’s all about forgiveness, reconciling with God and with family and whomever you’re at odds with. So, therein lies the connection between Sophocles and The Gospel at Colonus. It is about how we can move and push past all adversities in our lives. And with the help of divine energy and divine presence, we can do all things. Greek tragedies were told very much like the way a reverend delivered a sermon in the black Baptist or Pentecostal movement—very theatrical, high energy, and lots of call and response.”

The Triumph of Love
Through Aug. 28
Minnesota Centennial Showboat
Harriet Island, St. Paul
(651) 227-1100
www.riverrides.com

James Magruder’s translation has lightened up Pierre Marivaux’s 1732 classic with judicious cuts, breezy pacing, and nostalgic 20th-Century tunes that make it palatable to the Showboat’s mainstream audience.

The result is miraculous, not compromised. Marivaux’s original crossgender dynamics vibrantly are implemented by director Peter Rothstein’s University of Minnesota student ensemble. They sparkle dangerously throughout. The danger is the giddiness of watching male and female characters homoerotically magnetized by female characters credibly disguised as men. But it’s so much fun, the laughs undermine any judgments.

Music Director Denis Prosek has achieved fine vocals, with standouts in Christian Bardin, Suzy Kohane, and Zach Soules. C. Lance Brockman’s set and Annie Cady’s costumes augment the enchantment.

A Streetcar Named Desire
Through Aug. 29
Guthrie Theater
818 S. 2nd St., Mpls.
(612) 377-2224
www.guthrietheater.org

Blanche DuBois often is called the “female Hamlet,” and to watch Gretchen Egolf live the role at the Guthrie is to understand why. This superlative actress magically navigates Tennessee Williams’s bottomless dimensions of a deeply flawed yet spiritually noble Southern belle thrust into destitution, hence becoming dependent “on the kindness of strangers.” Egolf’s rendering of Blanche’s delicate reflections of her dead gay husband will tear your heart out. She even moves beyond Vivien Leigh’s iconic Oscar-winning portrait. Simply put, Egolf’s is a performance for the ages.

When Streetcar premiered on Broadway in 1947, starring Jessica Tandy (who herself later graced the Guthrie’s first acting company), only 27 years had passed since women got the vote. In director John Miller-Stephany’s transcendent staging, one is struck by the naked bluntness about women still being regarded as a rung above chattel.

This grimly radiates in Ricardo Antonio Chavira’s masterful turn as Blanche’s brutal brother-in-law, Stanley Kowalski. Chavira balances Stanley’s manic fluctuations between visceral aggression and feral vulnerablilty like a master pianist. The role’s trap is overplaying the aggression, but Chavira never is snared. It also owes to Miller-Stephany certifying that Blanche and her sister, Stella (Stacia Rice), are oblivious to the ethnic and classist slurs they systematically shoot his way, like throwing gasoline on a fire.

I question the Marlon Brando cult attached to Stanley, because the actor’s hot, naked torso made sexism sexy. It’s not that Chavira isn’t sexy—he is, and he has a great torso. Indeed, Williams adored Brando. But Chavira unearths the grotesquely hardwired misogyny at Stanley’s core, revivifying Steetcar’s numinous implicit commentary on the plight of women.

If Blanche is Hamlet, then Stella channels the uglier traits of his mother, Gertrude. Hence, Rice frankly reveals her as someone driven blindly by libido that she thinks is love, and compelled by a survivalist need for hypermacho protection. Stella’s emotional criminality proves how necessary the Sexual Revolution was. Surpassing Kim Hunter’s Oscar-winning turn in the terrific yet compromised 1951 film, Rice is maddeningly accurate, as Stella rationalizes her sister’s undoing to keep her man.

Brian Keane wrenches as Mitch, Blanche’s suitor, who self-destructively and stupidly vomits his unexamined Puritanism onto her when confronted by ignorant, erotophobic, male-driven gossip.

The stage glistens with sublime small-role performances—like those by Ann Michels, Beth Gilleland, and Richard Reeder.

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