Mauckingbird reinvents classics, challenges gender, in season’s end

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The Mauckingbird Theatre Company ends its seventh season with three shows in its “Mauckingbird Mix” program.

 

On Aug. 29, the company is presenting “Miss Cast 5: College Edition,” a cabaret-type show with a “sexy schoolgirl/sorority sister” theme that features singers performing songs that cross gender lines. For example, a group of college boys will do the “Cell Block Tango” from “Chicago.”

From Aug. 30-31, the company is hosting a staged reading of Lillian Helman’s “The Children’s Hour” in honor of the play’s 80th anniversary. The drama concerns two headmistresses at a boarding school whose lives are destroyed when a student accuses them of having a lesbian relationship.

And from Sept. 6-7, there will be a staged reading of Mort Crowley’s classic, “The Boys in the Band,” in which eight gay men assemble for Harold’s birthday party, and a ninth man, Cowboy, is Harold’s present.

All the performances will be held at Temple University’s Randall Theater.

Over lunch recently at More Than Just Ice Cream, Peter Reynolds, artistic director of Mauckingbird, and his partner Brandon McShaffrey, who is the program director, talked about the various productions.

Reynolds explained the appeal of “songs sung by the wrong people,” as “Miss Cast” is billed. He said, “As with our work with classical plays, what we find — and what is true with ‘Miss Cast’ as well — is when a really good piece of writing is interpreted by someone of the opposite gender, or through the lens of sexuality, new things emerge. Sometimes they are mind-blowing and revelatory, and sometimes they are just really fun.”

Reynolds cited an example from a past “Miss Cast” production in which a trained soprano sang “Pretty Women” from “Sweeney Todd.”

“It was as if that song could have been written by Sondheim for a woman to sing about other women. It was a truly sublime moment,” he said.

Reynolds and McShaffrey collaborate with the performers and encourage them to sing something they have always wanted to, but have not had the opportunity. One male performer will sing a tune from “South Pacific,” for example.

“It clicked with him immediately,” Reynolds said, adding, “We’re doing songs from ‘Legally Blonde’ and ‘Dreamgirls’ and maybe something from ‘Grease.’”

“Miss Cast 5” is hosted by Jennie Eisenhower, a Mauckingbird veteran. She will create a “party atmosphere” as Reynolds calls it, emceeing the various acts.

The Mauckingbird mission statement is to present classic texts interpreted through a queer lens. The works are LGBT pieces, such as “[title of show]” and include musical works. Most of the plays have been classics by Shakespeare, Molière and Oscar Wilde, because they are in the public domain and can allow for switching genders, whereas for contemporary works, copyright laws could be violated.

“We are the only company specifically queering these works,” Reynolds boasted. “When we did ‘Much Ado About Nothing,’ rather than a scene between a father and a daughter, it was between a gay young man and his mother. It was the same brilliant Shakespearean text being revealed in a new way. That’s why we started this company.”

The two staged readings, “The Children’s Hour” and “The Boys in the Band,” however, do not involve swapping gender. Though Reynolds considers the idea of having lesbian actresses perform “The Boys in the Band,” McShaffrey quickly shuts him down, emphasizing, “You’re not switching genders!”

Reynolds is presenting these shows to give audiences “the chance to hear a classic piece significant to queer theater history and queer history in a way that we can showcase the actors.”

He emphasizes that “The Children’s Hour” was the first groundbreaking lesbian play and “The Boys in the Band” was the first groundbreaking gay play. “Not that there weren’t others, but they fit together.”

McShaffrey, who is directing the reading of “The Boys in the Band,” first encountered Mort Crowley’s play in the film version on DVD in Jolliet, Ill. He admitted to sneaking into a Blockbuster Video and opening up a fake account to borrow films from the one shelf of LGBT cinema in the store.

“Watching the film, I didn’t relate to it at all,” he said. “But I knew it was important, and I wanted to look back and find out why.”

His reason for staging the show now is to “look at gay relationships at that time — at the beginning of the gay-liberation movement — when guys were struggling with monogamy versus not, and still having to come out to your college roommate. The world is still changing. By looking back, we can understand more where we are heading.”

“It was controversial at the time, because it was an honest portrayal of gay men,” Reynolds injected. “It didn’t treat gay men as a sidekick, or the freak, or the fop — the comic relief. It was the first successful play that really shows a group of gay men as three-dimensional humans. They are not nice, they are not happy. They are not supportive of each other. They are mean, they drink too much, they make mistakes, which makes them human, not ideal. They are treated as real gay men, and not idealized gay men.”

Reynolds and McShaffrey work with the actors, and they have a dramaturg who does work and research on the play, and shares it with the cast. The directors felt this was important to do for the actors to understand the play’s historical significance and the many period references.

McShaffrey believes his actors are “really proud to be doing the show, and exploring the world of the characters and sharing the stories. The directors have nothing but praise for actor Doug Green, who plays Emory, the campy character in the show.

“He’s really understanding camping, and never plays camp for camp’s sake,” Reynolds said. “He’s keeping it rooted in honesty, and not playing it for shtick. Emory is campy because he’s trying to lighten the mood and make people laugh. Not because he’s a flamboyant queen.”

One of the key scenes in “The Boys in the Band” is the presentation of the “gift” of Cowboy to the birthday boy, Harold. While a staged reading may not lend itself to the way it would be presented in a staged play, McShaffrey hopes to “find a way to reveal the gift,” as well as “stage” scenes of the men dancing, or fighting. “That’s my job — to make it theatrically viable in a reading. We can find a theatrical way of creating a similar effect, without staging the punches.

Audiences will be able to visualize the plays. “The trick is to get the actors comfortable enough where they don’t have to live in the book and interact. It’s the difference between a stage reading versus a table reading,” McShaffrey explained.

Reynolds insisted that one of the primary reasons they wanted to do “The Children’s Hour” was the casting of the two lead roles. “Both actresses, Kim Carson and Jessica Bedford, have worked with us before. They have been very good friends for years, so they bring this longtime, personal relationship between the two of them to these roles, which is very exciting to me.”

The directors believe the dramaturgical information is really helpful for the college actresses, who play the schoolchildren in the show. Because “The Children’s Hour” is structured as a melodrama, it doesn’t have the specific period references that “The Boys in the Band” does.

Reynolds, who teaches a class in queer theater at Temple University, recalls reading “The Children’s Hour” last year, only to have a young woman from the middle of Pennsylvania announce, “This happened in my school!”

As such, the play still resonates eight decades later.

For more information, including tickets, visit www.mauckingbird.com, or call 215-923-8909.