Torch Song Trilogy: A Mixed Bag of Queer Theatre

TotoToo Theatre’s latest production, Torch Song Trilogy, is an ambitious production of 3 separate plays that form one cohesive narrative. There are moments of brilliance – especially the acting in the third part – but the production might have benefitted (maybe) from a tighter focus on the third act as opposed to all three stylistically different plays that make up the trilogy, if only because the writing and acting are stronger.

Torch Song Trilogy tells the story of Arnold Beckoff, a gay Jewish man who makes his living as a drag performer in New York, and the years-long tumultuous relationship he has with Ed, a teacher insecure about his bisexuality. Even though these plays are over 35 years old, they deal with issues that gay men still face today such as insecurity, alienation, strained relationships with one’s parents, slut-shaming, and the struggle to find a meaningful connection in a culture of hook-ups and anonymous sex. Since the trilogy dates from the 1970s there’s not a single mention of AIDS, which certainly helps the text (and production) feel a lot more contemporary than works written 10-20 years later, and for the character relationships to be a lot stronger: without an external threat like AIDS constantly on everyone’s minds, the drama develops much more organically from the tensions between the characters, with a more satisfying conclusion as a result.

All three plays are performed in one evening, with a total running time of about 4 hours and 15 minutes (there are two intermissions). While they all tell different chapters of the same story, each play is written in a different style. It’s a demanding text to produce because of this, and the choices sometimes work and sometimes don’t, though the former occurs more often than the latter.

The first chapter, International Stud, takes its name from a gay bar in 1970s New York with a backroom (a closed-off area at the back where men would engage in anonymous sex), which is one of the few elements that really dates this play – in cities like New York or Toronto, backrooms are a rare find now that Grindr exists. We meet Arnold in drag as Virginia Ham, as he readies himself for performance and soliloquizes on why he’s disillusioned with love. As Arnold, actor Sam Dietrich faces a monstrous challenge of playing a character who, in turn, plays a character. Dietrich’s drag transformation is stunning and he’s clearly comfortable in in full makeup, wig, and outfit, although perhaps a slightly bigger difference as he alternates between Arnold’s natural speaking voice and his drag voice might be in order – after all, drag is all about going as big as possible (there’s still another 3 hours of performance afterward though, so it’s understandable to conserve some energy).

Soon after we meet Ed, who’s at the International Stud when he suavely picks up Arnold. The unusual style of this play asserts itself here: There are three performers in Act I, although none of them actually interact with each other until the final scene. When we meet Ed, we only hear his side of his conversation with Arnold, and we as the audience see the situation through Arnold’s eyes as Kurt Shantz (playing Ed) stands on a platform and talks directly to us. The other performer, Tracy Gagnon as Lady Blues, is a torch singer whose selections between the scenes underscore the tone of what we’ve just seen and what we’re about to see next. For the next hour or so we see how Ed’s inability to reconcile his attraction to men with his ability to fit in as a “normal” member of society destroys his relationship with Arnold, a powerful and moving storyline that is no less applicable today than it was in 1978. The highlight of this act is the extended sequence where Arnold finally ventures into the backroom at the behest of his oft-mentioned but never seen friend Murray, and narrates his thought process as he hooks up with another guy without ever seeing his face. Dietrich’s concentration in both reverse-thrusting in a continuous rhythm for several minutes while also delivering a monologue that is both funny and touching is commendable, although I do wish that it happened a little closer to the audience. The main issue with International Stud is the design component, specifically the set: because the characters are never shown in the same room (with the exception of the final scene between Ed and Arnold) the set consists of 3 platforms around the central area where Arnold’s dressing-table is. The dressing-table comes off after the first scene, and then we spend the rest of the time watching action happen mostly on the rear platform, which must be at least 10-15 feet away from the edge of the stage. Additionally Lady Blues (whose inclusion seems pointless, but I can’t argue with Fierstein’s established text) sings her songs while leaning against a piano although the music actually comes from pre-recorded sound cues. The set for Act III is fairly impressive, which makes the mediocre staging of this act even more puzzling. The acting and text of International Stud is fairly strong though, which makes up for the unimaginative stagecraft.

The second chapter, Fugue in a Nursery, blends realistic scenes into fugue format, something more familiar to musicians than theatre people: a subject is introduced, repeated by different voices, counterpointed, and the elements weave together until we return to a repetition of the original subject. In this case, the subject is the relationships between Arnold, Ed, and their new respective partners about a year after the events of International Stud. Arnold is now with Alan, a model a few years younger than him, and Ed is with Laurel, a woman he started dating during the end of his relationship with Arnold. When Laurel invites Arnold (who brings Alan) to Ed’s farmhouse in the country for the weekend, the interactions between all four characters are hashed out before we come to a conclusion that (despite the title) surprisingly ends more or less where it started. In this case the set is dominated by an enormous bed that serves as Ed and Laurel’s bedroom as well as the guest bedroom Arnold and Alan share. It’s simple but it works well. The storyline too is simple, with Ed’s immediate dislike of Alan leading to a fairly predictable climax. Laurel’s ease around Arnold and Alan and her acceptance of Ed’s previous relationships is unexpected but a nice touch. Joey McDougall’s Laurel is pleasant and accepting almost to a fault, and her flirtiness around both her boyfriend and his gay friends is a delight to watch. Laurel’s costumes are another way for the production to remind us what decade it is: one outfit in particular, with gypsy skirt, metal belt, white blouse, and enormous bandana is possibly the most ‘70s getup I’ve ever seen, which contrasts sharply with the much more muted outfits for the men (with the exception of some pretty ludicrous flared jeans). As Alan, Will Verrault Milner brings a lot of youthful verve to the role, although the childishness comes across as a little brash and high-maintenance. Fugue in a Nursery is strong enough to stand on its own, but it’s Act III that is the real meat and potatoes of Torch Song Trilogy.

Widows and Children First! picks up 5 years after Fugue in a Nursery, and a lot has changed: Alan has died, and Arnold is now playing the part of a single dad as he fosters former street youth David. Ed, now separated from and divorcing Laurel, is sleeping on Arnold’s couch. When Arnold’s mother visits from Florida, unspoken tensions between mother and son erupt when she discovers that Arnold is trying to adopt David. This act is written as a traditional realistic drama, and the acting, direction, costumes, and set beautifully coalesce into a moving production that feels as fresh now as it did in 1981.

As in the first and second acts Dietrich’s Arnold and Shantz’s Ed deserve praise, but something must be said for the other two actors. Ryan van Buskirk as smart-mouthed teen David presents an energetic figure who always knows just what to say and appreciates his adoptive father’s fussing as much he pretends to be annoyed by it, and Cathy Nobleman’s turn as the overbearing Jewish mother who’s convinced that she wants what’s best for her son is impactful, emotional, and full of smooth transitions from high to low even at the most sudden of dramatic twists. The emotional heart of this act comes when Arnold and Ma hash out their disagreements in a lengthy argument that dies down but never seems to come to a close. The argument scene has lots of yelling, but the yelling has dramatic reason behind it and Dietrich and Nobleman work carefully through the levels before they get all the way to the full-on scream – no dramatically unnecessary yelling here. Another treat is the relationship between David and Ed: it’s a decidedly comedic pairing that counterbalances the heavy drama of Arnold and Ma’s relationship, but while taking shelter outside while the shouting match goes on both discuss similarly heavy issues (violence towards LGBT people, for example) with a much lighter tone. While the content of Widows and Children First! is objectively depressing, there’s a lot of hope in there too for anyone who keeps trying to do the right thing in spite of emotional setbacks. The set for this act is a noticeable departure from the mostly abstract sets of the first two thirds: here we have an apartment kitchen complete with fridge, sink, and stove, and even a working radio. Whatever the weakness of the set in Act I, it is more than made up for with this period kitchen.

At approximately 90 minutes, Widows and Children First! is about as long as a typical drama, and the strength of the text as well as the acting makes me wonder if it would work as a standalone piece. Yes, the first two acts certainly give us the background information necessary to appreciate fully what’s happening, but like those first two the plot of this act is pretty much self-contained. Additionally, the running time would be a little more palatable to audiences, although I do concede that the story of all three acts combined moves along briskly and that at no point does the production feel stiff and composed.

Torch Song Trilogy presents a mostly strong trio of acts that presents the struggle for gay men to live a life with family, love, and self-acceptance. All 3 acts are fairly strong, but the first two acts do have some trouble standing up to the third, which is by far the strongest (to be fair, this may be due more to Fierstein’s script, in which the first two acts were separately produced before coming together to make up the trilogy). There are inconsistencies in the writing, but that’s nothing that TotoToo can help (why is it called Torch Song Trilogy if the torch songs are only in the first act, and why do we only see Arnold in full drag at the very beginning of our four-hour odyssey?). The long running time is bit unusual for an Ottawa production, but it fits in with the dramatic risks that TotoToo has been taking with the last few seasons, notably with a string of Ottawa premieres of well-known queer theatre pieces that haven’t been produced here despite their age. This list of Ottawa premieres, which has included Naked Boys Singing and Love! Valour! Compassion! (both of which featured onstage nudity) is certainly bringing an education to Ottawa theatre audiences of a dramatic genre that hasn’t been very prevalent on local stages. I don’t think that producing a show for the sake of it being a local premiere is a strong enough reason to do it, but TotoToo’s board of directors have chosen well from the myriad of shows unfamiliar to Ottawa audiences to present a sort of greatest hits of queer theatre. Is there a goal in mind, to bring the community up to speed before launching into new (or newer) work? Time will tell, but in the meantime I’m glad for the crash course.

 

Torch Song Trilogy

Written by Harvey Fierstein

A TotoToo Theatre production

 

At Academic Hall, September 7-17

Curtain at 7:00pm

 

Directed by Sarah Hearn

Stage Management by Josh Kemp

Set Design by Sally McIntyre

Lighting Design by Barry Sims

Sound Design by Justin Ladelpha

Makeup by Corey J. Stone

Costumes by Glynis Ellens

Props by Gil Winstanley

Prompting by Ann Scholberg

Stage Hand: Mike Kennedy

Front of House: Michael Tower

Canteen: Donald Martin

Box Office: Michael Bellefeuille

Starring, in order of appearance: Tracy Gagnon, Sam Dietrich, Kurt Shantz, Joey McDougall, William Verrault Milner, Ryan van Buskirk, Cathy Nobleman

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