Eugene Ionesco and gay theatre might seem like strange bedfellows, but the two actually fit hand in hand in Theatre Askew's brilliant and hysterically funny parody Bald Diva!, currently playing at the Red Room Theatre. Bald Diva! is a take-off on Ionesco's well-known if infrequently produced one-act absurdist comedy The Bald Soprano. Though knowledge of Ionesco's work is not necessary to enjoy this play, familiarity with the original only serves to add to the hilarity which playwright David Koteles has crafted.
For those who might not have seen Ionesco's now rarely-performed work (Atlantic Theater will perform a new version this spring), the general premise involves two English couples, the Smiths and the Martins, sitting around and discussing a variety of topics from food to death in non sequitur fashion. Written following WWII, Ionesco's 1950 play aimed to capture the difficulties if not the impossibility of communication in a world ripped apart by war while simultaneously representing the sense of complacency that was sadly pervading the modern world.
Similarly, Theatre Askew's Bald Diva! addresses these same themes of apathy and communication, but resets the action in Chelsea where commercialism and capitalism have become the homogenizing and complacent forces in contemporary gay life. No longer a community fighting for significant issues, Bald Diva!'s gay men in the age of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy have become body and fashion obsessed, only suited to talking about pecs and Prada.
In this reimagined version, the Smiths and the Martins are now two gay male couples: Tim and Jim Jackson-Smith (Tim Cusack and Jerry Marsini respectively) and Craig and Greg Tyler-Martin (Jeffrey James Keyes and Terrence Michael McCrossan). The Jackson-Smiths are the stereotypically "femme" couple, dressed in Daniel Urlie's outrageous costumes including a pink (or should I say fuchia?) midriff sweater vest for Jim. Surrounded by their cardboard cutout dogs Judy and Liza, Tim (the wonderfully flamboyant and over-the-top Cusack) effuses about plastic surgeons and fashion while Jim adds his own snippy thoughts and comments. Craig and Greg, on the other hand, are the "butch" couple, attired in identical workout clothes and filling the "muscle queen" stereotype.
Theatre Askew's production just doesn't reproduce Ionesco's text or substitute a few gay references here and there; rather playwright David Koteles has fashioned a sparkling original script that captures the wit and absurdity of Ionesco while foregrounding the play's gay milieu and issues.
Just as Ionesco's original work was a pastiche of phrases from an English grammar book, Koteles turns to the banality of recent gay magazines for inspiration. Koteles's riotous script seamlessly weaves together allusions to the Golden Girls, liposuction, musical theater, Dolce and Gabbana, and, of course, Liza Minnelli. The overload of gay stereotypes and allusions is both comical and sad, reflecting the way in which gay identity has often been reduced to nothing more than commodities (e.g. Pottery Barn, Britney Spears, and Fire Island). As the play reaches its denouement, dialogue between the Jackson-Smiths and the Tyler-Martins ultimately breaks down as the men seem to have nothing to talk about after the topics of gym workouts and hair product have been exhausted.
Dashing in and out of these scenes is the Jackson-Smiths' houseboy, Mary, played by the scene-stealing androgynous Matthew Pritchard. Whether embodying Norma Desmond or dashing off to mix "appletinis" for the Jackson-Smiths, every one of Pritchard's entrances and exits is a riot, making one wish his character had more to do. The play's cast of characters is rounded out by the fire chief (the hunky Nathan Blew) who turns up looking for a fire to extinguish. Appropriate to this queered production, Bald Diva!'s fire chief becomes the embodiment of gay fantasy as Blew performs a sexy strip-tease for the audience.
The play's conceiver and director Jason Jacobs (with dramaturgical assistance from Jamee Freedus) keeps everything moving at a brisk pace, a requisite for the text's heightened absurdist language. What is particularly impressive about this production, staged on Erik Flatmo's cartoonish set, is that it achieves both a sense of gay camp and parody while also creating a pitch-perfect absurdist feel. Equally impressive is that Koteles has provided the cast with a script that has the richness of Ionesco's work while standing firmly on its own. Under Jacob's direction, the cast rises to the occasion and flawlessly executes Koteles's work.
As queer company Theatre Askew's inaugural production, Bald Diva! is a major success. If this play is any indication, I predict good things in the future for this young company which aims to take queer theater in new and challenging directions.