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Chicago by John Olson

bare, Bailiwick Repertory Theatre
Good Boys and True, Steppenwolf Theatre Company

Also see John's review of Cirque Dreams: Jungle Fantasy


Sex, lies and videotape in Catholic schools

bare
Don Denton, Ryan Lanning
Though their artistic calendars were certainly developed independently, in the same December week Steppenwolf and Bailiwick both happened to open shows dealing with teenage sex (both gay and straight) in Catholic prep schools. Bailiwick's production of bare is the Chicago premiere of the LA-originated Off-Broadway musical that began its life as Bare: A Pop Opera. Steppenwolf's Good Boys and True is the world premiere of a play by openly gay playwright Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, and though its theme goes beyond teen angst, the story's conflict is set in motion when an apparent student-produced sex tape surfaces at an exclusive Washington prep school.

bare: Shakespeare's R&J Meet the Gospels

In bare, Peter and Jason are roommates and secret lovers at St. Cecelia's Boarding School in Massachusetts. Peter is eager to come out of the closet to his classmates and parents while Jason, a popular jock as attractive to the female students as he is to Jason, is not so sure and wants to keep their affair a secret at least through graduation. On Peter's urging, Jason auditions for the school's production of Romeo and Juliet and is cast as Romeo opposite his sister's roommate, Ivy, an insecure girl with a reputation for loose morals. Ivy's interested in Jason, who becomes involved with her before long, to the disappointment of another student, Matt, who has a thing for Ivy as well, completing the second of two triangles with Jason as their intersection.

The duality of the love triangles is matched by dual literary allusions: to the Passion of Christ as well as to Romeo and Juliet. For the school play, Peter is cast as Romeo's best friend Mercutio (for those who, like me, know the plot best through West Side Story, think Riff) while Matt plays Romeo's killer, Tybalt (Bernardo). The school's priest is no Friar Lawrence, though, and fails Jason when the boy comes looking for help with his sexual and affectional confusion.

If the Romeo and Juliet parallels aren't enough, the religious symbols ought to be. With the Cross hanging over the entire proceedings, you could think of Jason as Jesus, Matt as Judas and Peter as Simon Peter (the character's full name is Peter Simonds, but oddly the authors have Jason deny Peter rather than the reverse). The writers even have the nerve to include a lyric sung by Peter's mother, right after his unwelcome coming out to her, in which she remembers him as a "child who lay in his cradle so tender and mild." Authors Damon Intrabartolo and Jon Hartmere, Jr. are really asking for it here. If you're going to compare your characters' struggles with those of Shakespeare's protagonists, let alone Christ and the disciples, you'd better have something more to offer than this rehash of familiar themes of coming out, teenage sex and the sometime failure of the clergy to provide comfort and guidance when it's most needed.

Coming out and religious disillusionment have been done before, and this well-intentioned, earnest piece doesn't add much insight beyond the many novels and plays that have dealt with these topics. The one new theme bare touches - the plight of the gay or sexually confused teen who can pass as straight - merits more attention than it's given in this mélange of teenage sexual and religious conflict struggles for self-esteem. It doesn't help that the production's Jason, Don Denton, doesn't fully mine the complexity of the character who isn't ready to give up his golden boy image for the marginalization he'd likely experience after coming out. It might have been more interesting had they cast their Matt, Courtney Crouse, as Jason. Crouse gives a nicely nuanced performance as a decent-enough straight guy who reveals Jason and Peter's affair in a fit of jealousy, plus he has a mightily impressive singing voice. Jay Reynolds, Jr. lends a fine voice to the part of Peter, but is hamstrung by the script's portrayal of him as the sort of bland gay martyr that's all too common in pieces like this. Kristin Johnson and Kathleen Gibson do nice work as the troubled Ivy and her lonely roommate Nadia.

As written, this is not necessarily a story that needed to be told, let alone sung. And if it needed to be sung, it needed a better score than this one. It's rhythmic and has tons of energy, but most of the songs are relentlessly self-important and bleak. A few of the ballads break through, but the soul number "911-Emergency" sung by the Virgin Mary and two angels, and a gospel number ("God Don't Make No Trash") sung by the sassy African-American nun drama teacher Sister Chantelle (Michele Cason) are too-obvious attempts for comic relief.

While the score is pretty tedious, it is exceedingly well sung by Bailiwick's cast, under the musical direction of James Morehead and Robert Ollis. Director David Zak and Choreographer Christie Kerr keep the youthful cast moving in a way that establishes a sense of unbounded energy with inadequate outlets for it. Certainly, the show has had its cult following over the years and it may well have resonance with those who have experienced similar situations in their recent lives, but for audiences who longer-ago experienced these passages in life and literature, there's not much additional insight.

Regular performance times are Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 PM and Sundays at 6:30 PM through January 27th, 2008, at Bailiwick Repertory, 1229 W.Belmont, Chicago. For tickets call 773-883-1090 or buy them online at www.bailiwick.org.

Photo: by David Zak


Good Boys and True: Sex, power and privilege in a Catholic boys school

Good Boys and true
Tim Rock and Stephen Louis Grush
Good Boys and True, though its action is set in motion by a Catholic teen's sexual and social angst, is more concerned with the issue of privilege in America's upper classes and the price of maintaining one's place in that social stratum than with teen angst. It concerns the son of a wealthy family who is accused of sexual misconduct at an exclusive Jesuit Catholic boys' prep school in 1989 Washington DC. As a look into the families of America's elite, it's fascinating and rich with ideas. As a mystery, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa cheats by misleading the audience in ways that become apparent after leaving the theatre (it would require spoilers to reveal any of them, but I count four e-mail me if you want me to elaborate).

The scandal concerns a videotape of two teens one looking suspiciously like the school's star athlete Brandon Hardy (Stephen Louis Grush) performing "shocking and disgusting" sex acts with a teen girl. The mystery is that the boy's face is never seen, while the girl's is, but no one recognizes her. The tape was found in the locker of another football player who showed it to the team before it was discovered by the coach (John Procaccino). The coach shares his suspicions with Brandon's mother (Martha Lavey) in the hopes they can resolve the issue before it becomes a public scandal embarrassing the school and the family.

Secrets and lies are revealed throughout the two hours, five minutes of playing time and it's necessary to reveal a few early act one spoilers to give the piece much discussion. Here goes Brandon's participation in the incident is shown in an early scene to be unlikely since he, although he has a girlfriend and a reputation as a BMOC, is secretly gay and has been in love with his best friend Justin throughout their high school career, just like Jason and Peter in bare. And, like bare's Jason, Brandon is not ready to risk either the disapproval of his macho teammates or the place reserved for him in America's elite (he's already been accepted at Dartmouth) by coming out to his family and classmates.

It's an intriguing exploration of class in America as the truth unfolds, revealing the prices paid by Brandon, his parents and his exclusive prep school to maintain the appearances that are required to hold on to such exalted social standing. It works on a bit of a "lifestyles of the rich and famous" level as well as a voyeuristic level. (We don't see anything and we're never told just what disgusting sex acts were on that videotape, but we can imagine what they might have been and just how disgusted we would be if we had to watch all 30 minutes of it). The pressure on the upper classes to meet the strict expectations of them and the willingness of these characters to compromise personal values, individuality and general decency in the pursuit of power and prestige - is the focus of the piece.

In dealing with his gay characters, though, the openly gay Aguirre-Sacasa falls into the same trap as did the authors of bare and hundreds of other pieces of gay-themed literature. If mainstream literature has too frequently made tragic figures of gay men (the Brokeback Mountain/Philadelphia syndrome), gay writers have made villains or victims of their gay characters who fail to represent the most positive role models and have made saints of those who do. Like bare's Peter, Good Boys's Justin is the victim of a bi-curious boyfriend, and both characters are, in the eyes of their authors, as indubitably "right" as their cheating significant others (who meet tragic consequences) are wrong. This may be more defensible as a political-social statement than as a premise of good drama. Though Aguirre-Sacasa's Justin, as played winningly by Tim Rock, is stronger, more likable and more interesting than bare's Peter, he's ultimately another example of the black and white characterizations that have been too common in gay lit.

Even so, Good Boys and True is an engrossing piece, thanks to Aguirre-Sacasa's ear for dialogue and the low-key but compelling performances of the cast as directed by Pam MacKinnon. Grush catches the self-delusional innocence of a silver-spoon fed kid who can't believe he's done anything wrong because, well, that would be too out-of-character. Lavey convincingly navigates Liz Hardy's journey from shock and denial through rage, realization and regret. As the girl of the sex tape, Kelly O'Sullivan makes creates a complex character in just a few short scenes as the smart and determined lower class girl whose debut in the upper classes isn't the one she'd hoped for. Procaccino hasn't quite figured out how to avoid the clichés of the traditional coach stereotype, but Kelli Simpkins nicely underplays the role of Liz's sister and confidant. Todd Rosenthal, who designed the gigantic three-story set for Steppenwolf's August: Osage County, has a more modest but effective idea for this show, using the trophy-case adorned coach's office as a frame for the action, with a perfect postcard rendering of the campus on an upstage backdrop.

There's a lot to think about in Good Boys and True, but it needs more work to be an honest mystery, which in turn should make it a more honest drama. Aguirre-Sacasa has an opportunity to do that when the piece is produced by New York's Second Stage Theatre, under Scott Ellis' direction, later this season.

Good Boys and True will be performed Tuesdays through Sundays at 7:30 p.m., through February 16, 2008, with Sunday evening performances through January 20th only; Saturday and Sunday matinees at 3 :00 p.m., and Wednesday matinees on January 23, 30 and February 6 at 2:00 p.m. Tickets available at the Steppenwolf box office at 1650 N. Halsted, Chicago, by phone at 312-335-1650 or online at www.steppenwolf.org.

Photo: Michael Brosilow

See the schedule of theatre productions in the Chicago area


-- John Olson



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