Sunday, May 15, 2016

Review - 3rd Annual Q-Stage, Set A - A Very Queer, Very Different Double Feature

It would be hard to find two shows more different that the two halves of Set A in 20% Theatre Company’s third annual Q-Stage.  Hector Chavarria’s The Big Gay Mexican Show! is a colorful, polished, flashy variety showcase where the central character isn’t struggling with the Gay part of his title, but the Big and Mexican parts.  JamieAnn Meyers’ First Person: A Life In Transition is a raw, intimate travelogue through JamieAnn’s personal journey toward understanding her fluid identity as a bi trans woman - the queer part of her identity and its affect on all other aspects of her life, and the lives of those around her, is the central struggle here.  Both productions are about self-acceptance but they take very different routes to getting there.  And the things that make them different are the things that make them work so well.

“Changing your story comes with a price, but it is SO worth it.”

Hector Chavarria is the author, central performer and title character of The Big Gay Mexican Show! He sings a number of songs, in both English and Spanish.  When he kicked off the opener, the old Fred Astaire standard “Cheek to Cheek,” I had to look closely because I thought, “Is he lip syncing? That voice can’t be real, can it?”  But it is.  Chavarria has a hell of a set of pipes on him and he knows how to use them.  And he may be a Big Gay Mexican, but he’s surprisingly graceful and nimble on his feet as a dancer as well.  The primary aim here is first to create a buoyant, entertaining confection in many shades of pink and sequins, which Chavarria, his director Stacy Schultz, and his fellow performers Jennifer Buckout and Donn Saylor most definitely do.  But there’s something else going on under the surface, and periodically it breaks through the shiny, happy exterior.  My theater-going companion likened it to being “emotionally flashed” by the performers.  Again, being gay and a dreamer wasn’t the issue.  If he was put in a quiet corner at school for not fitting in, the Big Gay Mexican simply daydreamed a funny and fabulous musical number in his head to pass the time.  Interacting with Buckout, first as Cinderella, then as childhood best friend Angie, Chevarria returned more than once to the theme of how family can hold you back.  Chevarria pleaded with Cinderella to save herself from the emotional abuse that kept her tied to her home,  unable to make a better life for herself.  And when Angie berates the Big Gay Mexican for losing touch with his roots back home, it becomes clear that the distance and silence are deliberate - that he must take the extreme step of cutting off the needs and demands of the people in his past if he’s to build a future of his own.

“How do you know I don’t love you?”
“Because I would never allow it.”

Neither of those struggles is uncomplicated, and the brief flashes we get of them are effective.  But one wonders if, given a broader canvas of more time (as this is a work in progress designed to be a one-act), how The Big Gay Mexican Show! might dig deeper.  Does it require the narrative of an actual play, or would the variety show format still allow the possibility of further exploration?  Similarly, when Saylor takes on the role of Dream Date and perfect boyfriend, Chevarria’s title character can only take so much love and support before he snaps.  The Big Gay Mexican says he accepts himself, but he won’t allow others to accept him.  The Dream Date is a fictional character he can’t let become something real.  Can a person be fabulous 24/7 and leave room for another person to enter their orbit, or at some point do you have to drop the act and get real?  Is dropping the act even possible when the act isn’t an act, but it’s who you are?  Again, these are flashes.  The comedy and satire, as well as music and dance, are the things that take center stage here, and Chevarria and company do them all extremely well.  (And I didn’t even touch on the hilarious old actual TV ads that appear in the “commercial breaks.”)  I’ll be very interested to see where this performer and these ideas go in the future.

“You were born a boy, but now you’re a girl?  I didn’t know you could do that.”

By contrast, JamieAnn Meyers’ First Person: A Life In Transition is the sort of “rough around the edges” work in progress that I expect to see at Q-Stage.  That unfinished feeling, though, is part of what allows First Person to be raw in a way that a more polished production might have lost in its developmental journey.  Meyers isn’t taking on a character here.  This is her story.  Like Meyer’s own life, the story is full of unexpected twists and turns simply in the way it’s constructed.  It doesn’t present itself in strictly linear fashion from childhood to the present, though there are stretches that seem to go “in order.”  First Person jumps back and forth in time, and also wisely takes the time to broaden the world beyond just Meyers’ singular experience.  Meyers has parents, a wife, children and grandchildren, all of whom are also effected by Meyers’ decision to embrace her gender identity and make the transition from her outer shell being that of a man, to becoming a woman both inside and out.  The perspectives of these other important people in Meyers’ life are taken into account.  They aren’t simply obstacles.  They are as much a part of Meyers’ understanding of herself as her own inner thoughts and struggles.

“You may always call me Jim, and I’ll always be your son.”

Meyers didn’t break away from her family.  She stayed married to the woman she loved and fathered children with.  But that doesn’t mean either one of them is a lesbian.  If that’s confusing for other people, imagine how they deal with it.  Meyers comes out to her 88-year-old mother, and though mom tries to both love and understand her child, there are still things she can’t quite wrap her head around.  Meyers’ father is far gone mentally by the time Meyer feels she can come out to him - but the father doesn’t recognize the woman before him, and instead he thinks his grandson (also come to visit) is his son, because that’s the man in the room.  The acceptance of Meyers’ own grandchildren is often much more uncomplicated than Meyers coming to terms with herself.

“But there’s a collective story, isn’t there?”

First Person is also as much declaration as it is explanation. Meyers is a vocal advocate in real life - examples of which are also peppered throughout the narrative (and this whole performance is its own advocacy).  Meyers is also joined on stage by five other trans performers (Erica Fields, Zealot Hamm, Suzi Love, Beckett Love, and Pearl Noonan).  Under Shalee Coleman’s direction, this ensemble takes on multiple roles from a sort of trans Greek chorus to individual people in Meyers’ life.  (Fields gets quite a workout playing Meyers’ mother, and father, and wife.)  All this vocal, positive trans energy onstage gives Meyers’ story that much more punch - and a healthy dose of the feeling that this isn’t just theater, it’s real life for some people.  Trans people aren’t quite the “other” after this show that they might have been for some audience members before the show.  One wishes all the people currently running around with their hair on fire over the thought of people using the “wrong” public restroom could sit down and be presented with a dose of Meyers’ reality.  It might calm people the heck down.

“I was trapped in binary thinking and gender stereotypes.”

That said, First Person is an adult piece of theater.  There’s a lot of frank discussion of sexuality, and some accompanying pictures projected on the back wall of the theater are not something you see every day.  Should we all be a little less uptight about the the human body? Sure.  Consider First Person an exercise in expanding your comfort zone.

“I’m the Big Gay Mexican. Tell your friends.”

Q-Stage’s Set A this year is a cleverly matched pair of very different, but both very positive, explorations of places on the queer spectrum that we don’t see presented to us on a regular basis.  It’s a good reminder that there are all kinds of diversity, and we’re all a little more human when we understand each other better.

4 stars - Highly Recommended

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