Thursday, February 18, 2016

Review - June - Savage Umbrella - The Pre-Stonewall Lesbian Blues (and Resistance) - 4.5 stars

Even though I’m a gay man who likes to see the history of “my people” displayed on stage and screen, when you say “pre-Stonewall” anything I start to recoil a little, thinking I’m in for another dose of “the agonies of the long-suffering homosexual.”  But Savage Umbrella’s latest company created work June reminded me of a key fact, there is no post-Stonewall without pre-Stonewall.  And the lesbians and gay men who appeared safely on the other side of that cultural divide and built the foundation of the better world we live in today, they were formed and strengthened in the crucible of those pre-Stonewall days of shame, police raids, arrest, blackmail, firings (and the list goes on). 

“I didn’t have any choice.”
“That’s rarely true.”

Though society constantly tried to erase them, these women and men created their own refuges and hidden communities.  They gave each other strength and hope.  Savage Umbrella’s June is about one of those refuges, one of those hidden communities.  June is a lovingly rendered period piece, telling stories the history books tend to forget. (Speaking of history books, June is well-researched.  The friend who attended the play with me unleashed his inner history nerd at intermission and was delighted to double-check his phone and find that references to Sputnik, McCarthy and Jailhouse Rock were all spot-on for 1957.) (And of course, June is also a month with a lot of gay history.)

“There was fear behind their eyes.”

The company, guided by director/creator Hannah K. Holman and her writing partner Laura Leffler-McCabe, present the audience with a wide-ranging cast of characters that is also an all too rare occurrence - an all-female ensemble.  Men never appear, though the oppression of society which they represent and enforce is ever present. 

“My heart is suspended above me.”

Perhaps the most ingenious (and strangely delightful) invention in this regard is the manifestation of a police raid.  The violence of men is created vividly by Alana Horton on her drum kit.  Unleashing the noise and full power of percussion to assault our ears, Horton’s skill on the drums works in tandem with the physical work of the ensemble so you almost feel like you’re seeing the women being grabbed, frisked, and in some cases beaten and dragged away - even though no one else is there.  Horton, with KT Thompson on piano, offer up both harmony and tension throughout the evening, giving the play its own lush soundscape that at times makes it feel like a period movie as much as a play.

“You think we’d get used to it.”

The title character (and frequent narrator), college student June (Leslie Vincent), finds her way to a well-hidden lesbian bar in 1957.  New faces are a little less welcome than usual because the ladies are on guard against spies who might be working with the police to set up the next raid on their establishment.  June is constantly writing in her notebook, which some people take for a red flag.  Another newcomer is suburban housewife Dottie (Leffler-McCabe with her acting hat on), a woman with an unexpected arrangement back home. 

“Sometimes when you’re having nightmares, I want to crawl inside and tell you everything’s all right.”

Just as male and female roles were more rigidly codified in the 1950s, the dichotomy of butch and femme in the lesbian community was also often just as mercilessly enforced.  Crossing from one side to the other was frowned upon.  But that didn’t necessarily mean that the butch in the relationship was in charge the way a man would be out in the “real” world.  Within the confines of their secret world, everyone was supposed to be liberated, and if a femme didn’t feel like being tied down to just one person, then they pushed back on the notion of monogamy.  So butch B (Allison Witham) finds herself waiting, sometimes impatiently, for Viv (Marika Proctor), her femme with the wandering eye, to wander on back her way.

“Crying has always been a sign that you’re alive.”

It’s hard to single out any one performer because all the actors are equally good.  June is a real ensemble effort.  Against her better judgment, butch bartender MJ (Meagan Kedrowski) engages in a flirtation with Dottie.   Meanwhile, June catches the eye of torch singer Mae (Emily Dussault).  The well-traveled and well-educated Jo (Hope Nordquist) seems to always be trying to make peace and help expand their community.  Holding herself a little apart, the troubled Lil (Kathryn Fumie) struggles to deal with the grief brought on by the death of her girlfriend George -  a butch woman who met a suspiciously untimely and violent end not long before the story of the play begins.  Society comes down especially hard on the butch women, since they refuse to present themselves in the soft, frilly, and deferential way a woman was expected to act.  When society pushes back against progress, the butch women take the hardest hits first, because they’re the ones who step forward.

“We are mysteries to ourselves.”

The look of the women in June is especially striking.  Hair and makeup, along with the costume design by (what I’m assuming is a very tired) Laura Leffler-McCabe, assisted by Ilana Kapra, with construction by Jerry McMurray and Holly Walter, vividly evokes a bygone era.  I’m sure on many levels it was a pain in the butt for these women to put together this look, but many of the femmes end up with the glamorous sheen of old-school movie stars of the period. 

“There are so many people in the world.  Why does it have to be so lonely?”

This is especially true of Emily Dussault as Mae, who also lends her vocal and musical composition talents to help set the moment in  history.  Dussault’s music creation with fellow composer Ted Moore gives the audience the treat of several songs that sound so right for the time that you could swear they were standards - that they’re songs you should actually know, even though they didn’t exist before.  Dussault’s performance of these songs (with Thompson and Horton on piano and drums) is perfect.  Her sound, as much as anything, keeps us grounded in the period, and gives it an almost swooningly romantic feel.  (June’s a lucky young lady, landing Mae right out of the gate.)

“We keep each other scared.  We keep each other alive.”

Since June is young, and largely impervious to the mishaps of fortune that befall nearly every other character in the play, sometimes her narration seems a bit much.  Most of the time, though, she and the play can get away with it.  The reality of the other characters’ lives often will make the case much better than anything June herself could say to us.  But this is a small, and good, problem to have.  Fair warning: this is a very sex positive show (kudos for that), and though very little skin gets shown, still very little is left to the imagination.  These ladies are pretty frank about how ready they are for a good time, and when they get a little hard-won alone time, they make the most of it.

“Someday we’re all going to just be people.”

June the play is a richly textured look at another time that allows us to see how far we’ve come, and marvel at how we ever got here.  It also shows us the resilience of the human spirit, and the human heart, in the face of things that even now seem reluctant to change.  Pull up a stool at the bar.  We’re all lesbians tonight. (runs through February 26th)

4.5 stars, Very Highly Recommended

(Photo by Carl Atiya Swanson for Savage Umbrella; (l,r) Emily Dussault as Mae, Leslie Vincent as the title character, June)

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