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Minneapolis by Elizabeth Weir

Penumbra's Stage Directions burns hot

Stage Directions
Jay Jones and
Desmond Bing

In a rich season that reaches beyond the black/white dynamic of race to ask all-encompassing questions, Penumbra Theatre scores again with L. Trey Wilson's award-winning Stage Directions, a funny drama that takes an honest look at a no-no - black homosexuality. Powerful acting, issues that are everybody's and Lou Bellamy's compassionate direction hallmark this production.

Wilson sets Stage Directions as a play within a play and, depending on how your read the unexpected ending, a further play folds within these two.

The trouble begins with a tickle; it escalates with a kiss.

Like two magnets turned side-on, so that the intense attraction between them sheers off and won't connect, Gary and Rod's characters struggle against an unseen force. Rod's character is in denial about his latent homosexuality; Gary's embraces his homosexuality. In the opening scene, the two men maneuver within the attraction and counter attraction that Terry the gay playwright's script dictates. His script also requires the scene to culminate in a mouth-to-mouth kiss. Thoroughly, heterosexual Rod balks at "kissing a dude," even though he agreed to it in principle at audition. Jay, the straight director, struggles to find compromises, anything to keep the rehearsal going. To add to the tension, The Village Voice is sending a photographer to shoot pictures for an article on up-and-coming black playwrights. Passions rise. Alliances form and sunder as gut attitudes reveal themselves and threaten the production.

Desmond Bing plays Gary, the sweet-natured and well-out-of-the-closet actor, in an engaging performance that taps his character's vulnerabilities and strengths. Gary is an idealistic gay, a man who expects equal acceptance and respect from the straight world. Although it is Rod who causes the trouble, Gary comes in for the heaviest criticism from both gay Terry and straight Jay for refusing to compromise his expectations. To Gary falls the task of speaking out about a gay man's pain in a heterosexual world. Bing handles the text with fire, but even he cannot conceal the script's inclination towards didacticism as tensions mount in the second act.

All-male Rod comes alive in the hands of Jay Jones. Rod is a forceful man, and Jones finds Rod's ambiguities that make the character feel real. The script gives him some fun lines. When director Jay tells Rod to imagine he is kissing his aunt, Rod recoils, and says, "My aunt tries to tongue me." In another nice moment he deep breathes and tries to zen himself into kissing Gary. Rod claims that he is not homophobic, but he finds homosexuality "distasteful." Jones manages to pack Rod with the feeling of incipient violence.

Terry, the playwright, is over willing to accommodate - anything to get his play up and running. Harry Waters Jr. manages Terry's innate gentleness and his pandering to intransigent Rod, well. As things fall apart, Terry projects his mounting frustration onto Gary, and these layers of thinking and prejudice within the gay community come as a revelation.

As Jay, the play-within-a-play's director, ever-excellent James Craven is like a patient father coaxing difficult children, until he, too, explodes in a fury of verbal invective that leaves the stage and the audience stunned in silence. Shawn Hamilton has a small part that he plays with calibrated shading.

Director Lou Bellamy uses Penumbra's intimate house as part of the stage. Jay directs the play from a table in the front row of seats. Actors exit and enter, speak and shout from the aisles of the theater so that audience members cannot help but feel engaged in the gathering storm on stage. When Gary exits in a huff, he appears to slam off the lights, and that's the dramatic end of the first act. When Terry and Gary josh and kid their way through the audience, for all the world like two school girls, the two straight characters, Jay and Rod, watch in silence; their timing suggests their sense of otherness from the two gays. Bellamy's touch is subtle and even-handed throughout.

Bellamy has an unnamed stage hand mop the floor and set up Jason Alleyn-Schwerin's simple set as the audience find their seats. The set becomes a metaphor for the action. It is a bare stage with the fly space and all the workings of theater visible, just as the play lays bear the day-to-day workings of living a gay life in a hetero world. The transformation of the set at the play's close is magical. A dull scrim of trees with a city in the distance fills with three-dimensional light, and a figure walks out of it and on stage—lovely stuff.

There's much to recommend Wilson's witty script, even if it begins to feel a touch agenda-driven in the second act, and the acting is first rate—too good to miss.

Stage Directions March 23 – April 24, 2005. Wednesdays 10:00 a.m. Thursdays 7:30 p.m. Fridays -Saturdays 8:00 p.m. Sundays 7:30 p.m. Matinees Saturdays and Sundays 2:00 p.m. Tickets $30 - $55. Penumbra Theatre, 270, North Kent Street, St. Paul. Call 651-224-3180 or www.penumbratheatre.org.

Photo: Ann Marsden


- Elizabeth Weir



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