Queer theater wrap up

“DENIS & KATYA” Photo by Dominic M. Mercier for Opera Philadelphia

LGBTQ representation took center stage in Philadelphia theater this year. Queer artists told their stories, and out performers, directors and designers achieved award-winning success with many different varieties of entertainment. Here’s a look back on the year in queer in regional theater.

In January, Mauckingbird Theatre Company — long one of the area’s leading gay-themed producers — returned after a period of dormancy with a new production of Noël Coward’s “Fallen Angels.” In an intriguing twist, the staging recast the two central roles, written for women, with male-identified actors, playing a pair of bored London housewives who consider an affair with their shared former flame. The casting allowed the audience to imagine what life might have been like if gay marriage were legal in the roaring ’20s.

Mauckingbird also helmed the area premiere of Joshua Harmon’s “Significant Other,” about a single gay man coping with the marriages of his three women best friends, during the Philadelphia Fringe Festival. Here’s hoping they’ll stick around and bring us more gay theater for years to come.

Opera Philadelphia sponsored the U.S. premiere of Robert Carsen’s legendary production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” a seminal work by the iconic queer composer Benjamin Britten. It was a largely successful affair, with strong musical virtues, eye-catching design elements and a solid sense of storytelling. The company’s commitment to queerness continued into their annual O Festival, which featured the world premiere of the extraordinary “Denis & Katya” (by out composer Philip Venables) and the strikingly original “Let Me Die,” an exploration of the genre’s fascination with death by the undefinable performance artist Joseph Keckler.

The most memorable queer theater often comes courtesy of smaller, emerging companies. One of the highlights of my theater-going year was a production of Bertolt Brecht’s “Mother Courage and Her Children,” which featured a cast of all women-identifying and nonbinary performers. It was the second full production offered by Subscension Theatre, produced al fresco in Headhouse Square. The casting and staging choices drove home Brecht’s message about the toll endless war takes on marginalized communities.

The other major incubator for gay performance is the Fringe Festival, and two productions of works by legendary gay playwrights were well worth the effort. EgoPo Classic Theater dusted off “And Tell Sad Stories of the Death of Queens,” an obscure but deeply personal drama by Tennessee Williams, revolutionary for its frankness when you consider it was written in 1957. (It was never staged until 2004.) 

The story of a New Orleans trans woman and her tragic search for love, it featured incisive direction by Lane Savadove and a gorgeous central performance by out actor Rob Tucker. Designer Dane Eissler transformed a small anteroom at the Asian Arts Initiative into a striking garden-apartment set, awash in cherry blossoms.

Also during Fringe, Tina Brock’s invaluable Idiopathic Ridiculopathy Consortium offered a rare revival of William Inge’s “Come Back, Little Sheba” at the Bethany Mission Gallery. Inge never explicitly wrote about his sexuality or the psychic pain it often caused him, but allegory is stamped all over the desperation of his struggling suburban characters. Let’s have more Inge productions in the future, OK?

Out playwright Adam Bock’s “A Small Fire” opened Philadelphia Theatre Company’s 45th season, and it was the most satisfying offering I’ve seen from the company in many years. Bock, like Inge, is a writer who understands how to extract the extraordinary from ordinary people and situations. His tale of a woman who gradually loses all her senses — yet gains a new level of self-awareness — is exactly that. The legendary Bebe Neuwirth brought some star power to the production, but more than that, she offered an expertly calibrated, fully inhabited performance.

Lastly, at Two River Theater in Red Bank, N.J., an exciting world premiere closed out the year. “Love in Hate Nation,” by well-regarded composer Joe Iconis (“Be More Chill”), spoofs bad-girl movie tropes of the 1950s and ’60s with surprising elan. But at its center, it also features a tender love story between two teenage girls, who discover their own identities after being shipped off to a reformatory. Amina Faye and Kelly McIntyre, as the two young women, flaunted rafter-shaking voices and winning personalities. Remember their names. And remember “Love in Hate Nation,” because it’s going places.

The Barrymore Awards for Excellence in Theatre, held on Oct. 14, also rewarded queer artists and stories. “The Color Purple” (Theatre Horizon), a thrilling stage adaptation of Alice Walker’s lesbian love story, swept the musical categories. Out actors Justin Jain and Brandi Burgess took home prizes for their leading performances in “The Great Leap” (InterAct Theatre Company) and “Cry It Out” (Simpatico Theatre), respectively. “Gem of the Ocean” (Arden Theatre Company), directed by the talented out theater-maker James Ijames, won multiple prizes, including Outstanding Director of a Play. 

There is more theater in general, and queer theater in particular, happening in our region than I could fit into a single column. And there will be more to come in 2020. Do yourself a favor: Go out and see a show.