Chicago Theatre Review
A Codeword for Gay
The Temperamentals – About Face Theatre
The two men sharing a conversation in a diner would, at first glance, appear to be simply be a couple of suitsdiscussing business. But, upon closer observation, we notice that one of the young men has a slight accent and is dressed with a bit more style than his companion. There’s one more thing: the more conservatively-dressed gentleman has purposely rested his dress shoe tenderly upon the other man’s foot. It doesn’t appear to be an accident. It’s a purposeful gesture performed with a definite sexual subtext. The fellow is Harry Hay, a closeted gay man who’s become tired of hiding his sexual identity. His companion is his lover, Austrian fashion designer for films, Rudi Gernreich. Together these two men will eventually become the founding fathers of a new organization that would represent thousands of American people.
Jon Marans’ 2010 Drama Desk Award-winning play portrays the individuals responsible for the development of the Mattachine Society, the first enduring LBGT rights organization. The story is seen through the eyes of five of its founding members. This historical docudrama, which earned acclaim during its original Off Broadway presentation, is finally premiering in Chicago. Many new works, revivals and documentaries have emerged that reflect all elements of gay history, possibly sparked by the debates and ruling concerning marriage equality. However, very little has been seen that depicts the world before 1969 and the Stonewall Riots. Marans’ play puts faces on the facts regarding this neglected period of gay history.
In 1950 Harry Hay and Rudi Gernreich, along with some of their Los Angeles friends, formed an organization to protect the rights of all Temperamentals, the code word applied to homosexual men. Together with Bob Hull, Chuck Rowland and Dale Jennings the group drew up their own declaration of independence. After a couple of choices were bandied about and discarded, the members eventually settled on calling themselves the Mattachine Society. The moniker was taken from an organization of French Medieval and Renaissance men who performed around the countryside in disguise. These anonymous actors created colorful, musical masques that were actually protests against political oppression. Gay men living and working in the early half of the twentieth century were also masked, always having to hide who they really were, for fear of being ostracized, or worse.
In artistic director Andrew Volkoff’s stylish production, staged upon Joe Schermoly’s clever, spartan setting of sliding panels and angular inlaid wooden floor, the action is swift and seamless. The simplest suggestion of locale, including chairs, racks of clothing and sheer curtains, move on and off stage with ease. Costumed with a certain “Mad Men” flavor, Mieka Van Der Ploeg has cloaked her cast in conservative, well-tailored suits, enabling these gay characters to blend in with every other man from the Eisenhower era. As the story unfolds, she gradually introduces elements of fashionable flare and individuality, thus mirroring the freedom of expression these five men achieve over time.
The cast is exciting and talented, with three of the actors playing multiple roles. Every actor portrays a unique, real life individual and does so with skill and artistry. Handsome Kyle Hatley, so memorable in TimeLine’s “Danny Casolaro Died For You,” is a strong, straightforward Harry Hay. He’s a Communist, a teacher, but also a closeted married man with children whose unhappiness is heartbreaking. Sometimes loudly lashing out with anger and frustration, at other times gentle and seductive, Mr. Hatley is the soul of this story.
If Hatley is the soul, Lane Anthony Flores provides the heart of this play as Rudi Gernreich. More flamboyant and just as intelligent, Rudi is the Yin to Harry’s Yang. The two men are different but interdependent. They’re the opposite sides of the same coin yet they also complement each other. Mr. Flores, a standout in the Gift Theatre’s recent production of “The Grapes of Wrath,” is smooth, sophisticated and supportive of Harry’s proposed movement. However, as played by this talented, young actor, Rudi is still concerned with number one. He isn’t about to toss aside his own professional aspirations simply for a political cause. As passionate as Flores’ Rudi is in his relationship with Harry, his character is equally driven when it comes to furthering his career.
The supporting cast, those men Hay and Gernreich recruit to their cause, are played with power and dignity by three gifted Chicago actors. Talented Rob Lindley, who plays Chuck Rowland, captures his character with just the right amount of conservative fear and moral trepidation. His cameo portrayal of famed Hollywood director Vincent Minnelli is particularly well-crafted, and audiences are even treated to Mr. Lindley’s accomplished musical talent in an Act II choral number (under the musical direction of Aaron Benham). Alex Weisman, one of Chicago’s favorite, most versatile, young actors is terrific as Rowland’s lover, Bob Hull. Weisman also impresses playing other characters, but his eager earnestness as Hull is his finest portrayal of the lot. Making his About Face debut, Paul Fagen creates a shy, somewhat reticent Dale Jennings, Bob Hull’s second lover. As this blue collar worker, who’s still attracted to the boyish Hull, Fagen gives life to this gentle soul. He’s filled with an understandable anxiety as he becomes the group’s public face, after standing trial and facing possible jail time for his arrest in a public restroom. Four of the male actors don drag at the top of Act II for Harry Hay’s nightmare sequence, during which he confronts his fears with the women in his life.
What’s hidden beneath those conservative suits and the carefully guarded demeanor is an alternative life style into which, despite the accepted belief during the 40’s and 50’s, these real life men were born. They didn’t choose to be gay; it was part of their genetic makeup, although science wouldn’t corroborate this theory for years to come. Instead they found that they had to hide who they were, prompting the formation of groups like the Mattachine Society. Seeking to protect and improve the rights of homosexual men, this forerunner to all other contemporary LGBT organizations is shown here in its infancy as the first major effort to support those men who were sadly nicknamed the Temperamentals.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented January 13-February 18 by About Face Theatre at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available in person at the box office, by calling them at 773-975-8150 or by going to www.aboutfacetheatre.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.