Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Also see Arty's review of Jagged Little Pill
I am not certain why the description of Verities drew me in. It perhaps had to do with its calling up a time now generally treated as old history, yet still alive in the psyche of many who suffered through–and survived–the ravages of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s. Then, an AIDS diagnoses was a death sentence while large swaths of the public, including the federal government under Ronald Reagan, saw no need to invest in a fight against what had first been called "gay cancer." Our most recent pandemic experience, stoking fear of contagion among the populace, has papered over the terror intensified by homophobia that ran rampant. It seemed fitting to revisit that earlier era, especially in light of recent push back in state legislatures and courtrooms against gains in civil rights made by the LGBTQ+ community over the decades since.
Of course, my notion was based on an assumption that the cater-waiter at the heart of the story was gay, and that AIDS was why Ross Johnson was facing the end of his life. I was correct on both counts. Verities is a memoir for the stage, punctuated by music. Anthony Stanton greets us with the disclaimer that he has just an hour before his next gig. I took this to mean his next gig as a cater-waiter, though perhaps he was gigging in some other line of work at this point. No matter, the idea that he is sacrificing his precious one-hour break with this audience of strangers is an appealing opening, conferring added value on the limited time we would have together.
Anthony begins by dipping into his youth in Buffalo, New York, where he was as a closeted gay student at an all-male Jesuit high school–what he calls his "best acting performance ever." After high school and coming out, he moves to Buffalo's "historic preservation district," patronizes Buffalo's lone gay bar, and sets out in search of a special boy, not for a night, but someone for a lifetime. His journey continues with acting classes, a stint in Los Angeles, and finally to New York City after deciding his trajectory as an actor was toward theatre rather than film. It is the 1980s and along the way he has become HIV positive, but thankfully, not sick.
In New York, he has two major breakthroughs. He is hired as a cater-waiter at an exclusive event venue where his customers include the glitterati of politics and entertainment. Anthony is awestruck, and this setting is grist for several amusing anecdotes, complete with dropped names. His second more significant breakthrough is meeting Ross Johnson. Ross is that special boy Stanton had been looking for all those years. He too is HIV positive, but not as lucky as Anthony.
Stanton shares compellingly about his time with Anthony, including a visit to Anthony's family in Great Falls, Montana, and their final days together. Still, more would be welcome. From their initial ecstatic discovery of one another, we are given large leaps across the landscape of their relationship. It would deepen the impact of Verities to hear more about its progress, the small ways in which Anthony and Ross provided a safe and loving home for one another, and how they lived their love for as long as they could, despite Ross's illness. As a fringe show, Verities was strictly limited to one hour, but with liberty to lengthen the show a bit, Stanton's story could be that much more gripping.
The Diva referenced in the show's description is Olivia Kemp, a theatre artist of diverse talents who appears here in an elegant chanteuse's gown, perhaps one worn at one of those swanky affairs at which Anthony serves celebrity guests. Kemp has a strong, lush voice that brought depth to songs that serve as mirrors, reflecting on. These include "Ballad of the Sad Young Men," "New York, New York," What a Wonderful World," "Feeling Good," and "Calling You," the haunting song from the film Bagdad Café. David Lohman provided the moody piano accompaniment. Stanton also sang on a couple of occasions, delivering songs with all his heart. He is not a skilled vocalist, but his sincerity in part made up the difference.
Slides provided atmospheric imagery and at times photographs of Anthony or Ross. As the show neared its end, a lovely shadow-puppet sequence, created by Hinterhands Puppet Company, depicted the release of Anthony's ashes in an extraordinarily special setting.
Verities, which I saw at one of the last of its Fringe performances, is a work in progress. Stanton is a charming host and earnest storyteller, but will benefit from greater fluidity in his delivery of his text. As noted, the opportunity to judiciously expand the piece can bring additional depth and insights to Verities. Stanton had just in the previous few days added a reference to his beloved mother, now facing the end of her long life. This may be a source of additional messages that may bring additional scope to the play.
As Verities ended, I wished it had retained the conceit of Anthony being on his break, bringing an end to the reverie of his memories that could last only as long as his break allowed, and back to the reality of life lived in the present. It is the awareness of our present state that enables us to recognize the treasures we have held in the past, to acknowledge the verities of our lives.
Verities ran August 4 - 13, 2023, as part of the Minnesota Fringe Festival at Bryant Lake Bowl, 810 W. Lake Street, Minneapolis MN. For more information, please visit minnesotafringe.org.
Created and Directed by: Anthony Stanton; Shadow Puppetry: Hinterhands Puppet Company; Producer: Anthony Stanton and Eric Penniston.
Cast: Olivia Kemp (the Diva), David Lohman (Pianist), Eric Penniston (Waiter), (Anthony Stanton (himself).