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Forbidden Fruit

Theatre Review by Warren Hoffman

What a delightful, entertaining, and riveting carnivalesque mess Forbidden Fruit is. Staged by the LMNO Theatre Company and enjoying a return engagement in the West Village, Jeff Bedillion's play Forbidden Fruit is an impressive theatrical romp that takes theater, particularly gay drama, in some decidedly new, refreshing, and unexpected directions.

On a surface level, the plot of Forbidden Fruit, composed of two slightly intertwined stories, is rather slim. Christian (Joel M. Peterson) is a young closeted gay man who is conflicted about his sexuality and tries to reconcile his homoerotic desires with the conservative religious right rhetoric of his "Mommie" (played to perfection by Kurt Alger). On the other side, we find Brian, (a deliciously handsome Josh Berresford) and his girlfriend Lisa (the quirky Katharine Heller). Brian realizes that he's gay and he and Lisa break up, but not before both develop a crush on Brian's best friend Michael (Robert Abid).

Normally, a plot like this would send me screaming from the theater. Coming-out plays and plays about "tormented" and "conflicted" gay individuals are nothing new, but Bedillion, serving both as the play's writer and director, has created a work that almost defies description. Situated somewhere between avant-garde performance art and traditional narrative theater, Forbidden Fruit stitches together a variety of dramatic techniques to create a highly stylized postmodern theatrical cavalcade of contemporary gay experience. The play weaves Christian motifs throughout the work, looking at the relationship between religion and sexuality. Ultimately, the wild antics of Forbidden Fruit position theater as its own type of religious ritual that utilizes dance, song, and movement as an way to make sense and meaning of contemporary gay life.

The play is divided into bits and sketch-like skits that call on almost every imaginable theatrical technique in the book (save kabuki). I mean when was the last time you saw a play that utilizes masks, choral speech, a country hoe-down with Busby Berkeley choreography, a drag singer, a wrestling match, percussion instruments, and nudity, all in the same show? And that's just the first act! The layering and the constant shifting of these elements, in all their diversity and messiness, somehow inexplicably works, forming a piece that is rarely boring and always surprising.

Part of Bedillion's brilliance as the writer and director of this show is that he isn't afraid to push on boundaries and try new things. When Michael challenges his friend Brian to wrestle with him, the two don't just push each other around, rather the play takes a wonderfully wacky twist and has Brian and Michael rip off their clothes to reveal wrestling outfits. Complete with a wrestling mat, a butch coach (the side-splittingly-funny Claysey Everett) enters to cheer the guys on while another actress parades by in a bikini holding up the numbers of the passing rounds. Such absurd events mark the entire show turning this simple play with a quotidian premise into a veritable theatrical feast.

Sure, some of the work never quite gels and the second act rambles and feels overlong. A moment of gay bashing, for example, at the end of the second act seems tacked on, while a monologue about penis size delivered by Brian's ex-girlfriend Lisa feels entirely gratuitous. Still, Heller delivers the monologue (complete with lingerie, feather boa, and high heels) with such zeal, conviction, and polish that you can't help but overlook that the moment is rather pointless. The play changes direction so rapidly that even when it takes a wrong turn, almost assuredly a better scene quickly appears to get the play back on track.

Forbidden Fruit boasts some strong acting talent as well, with two particularly standout performances. Kurt Alger, the show's choreographer (doing major duty on several impressive dance sequences that the cast gamely executes), plays Mommie, Christian's mother. Decked out in pearls, blond wig, and various prim dresses (and looking a little like Tipper Gore), Alger's performance is not kitschy drag, but a totally convincing portrait of a conservative bible-thumping mother who truly loves her son. Yet Alger's work doesn't stop there, rather he performs as several other female characters, all of which get big production numbers (with music by Ethan Hein). Alger is a scream as the biblical Jezebel in a country-inspired number as he sings of Jezebel's whoreishness all while executing some high-stepping choreography. Harvey Fierstein watch out!

Josh Berresford as Brian also offers a beautiful, heartfelt and funny performance. Of all the male actors, he most smoothly negotiates between the piece's sense of pathos and seriousness alongside the show's outrageous hilarity. Erick C. Thorsen is also effective as a variety of characters including a Cabaret-like Emcee figure who, in Brechtian fashion, introduces many of the play's "bits." Claysey Everett, picking up various supporting roles, demonstrates a keen sense of comic timing and character.

LMNO's production is not only a fun show, but also a work that really pushes theater in a new direction. Bedillion and the company should be congratulated for thinking outside the box and for attempting something daring that challenges convention. The play might not be to everyone's taste as it does contain some full-frontal nudity and simulated sex acts, but Forbidden Fruit truly is a summertime delight that, like the apple in the Garden of Eden, is worth biting into.

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LMNO Theatre Company
Forbidden Fruit
Through August 7
Wings Theatre Company, 154 Christopher Street, between Washington and Hudson Streets
Schedule and Tickets: 212.868.4444