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September 6, 2012

Review: Rep Stage explores early gay rights history in 'The Temperamentals'

In those sage words of L. P. Hartley, "The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there."

For gay people, living in that "foreign country" meant camouflage, super-discretion, constant worry about what others might see or say.

Gays also developed their own foreign language of sorts, with code words that could prove useful in social settings. One such word, applied as a noun or adjective in the 1940s and '50s, was "temperamental," a substitute for "homosexual" (another, equally droll term in that period was "musical").

Jon Marans' 2009 play "The Temperamentals," which has been given an affecting production to open the 20th anniversary season of Rep Stage, shines a light on some of the most important and least known figures in mid-century gay history.

Today, the campaign for gay rights is widely considered to have been triggered in 1969 by the unexpected and fierce resistance to a police raid on the Stonewall Inn in New York's Greenwich Village. But the struggle started much earlier, most notably in 1950 across the country in Los Angeles.

There, in an act as daring in its way as the Stonewall riot, Harry Hay and a handful of friends formed the Mattachine Society to advocate for the right of homosexuals to live freely and openly.

Marans explores this story in a way that ...

neatly balances docudrama and personal drama. For the most part, historical details emerge without textbook dryness, and the political messages are not hammered home heavily.

This allows the interesting stories of the people involved, the lives that intersected in unpredictable ways in a tense era, to take the forefront and generate an engrossing work of theater.

In this respect, "The Temperamentals" is akin to Larry Kramer's autobiographical "The Normal Heart."

Both works focus on a specific struggle at a specific time -- Hay's determination to gain social and legal acceptance for what he termed "a sexual minority"; the demands by the Kramer-based character in "The Normal Heart" that the government acknowledge and work diligently to stop a devastating new illness affecting gay men.

Both plays center around someone who ruffled feathers and ended up ostracized from the organization he founded, accused of being too confrontational, too controlling.

"The Temperamentals" packs in a lot of detail and, using only five actors, a lot of characters (most of the performers take on multiple roles). Even Vincente Minnelli, the closeted film director, pops up -- Morans' way of raising the subject of Minnelli's wife, gay patron saint Judy Garland, is a particularly effective addition to the welcome humor deftly threaded through the play.

Nigel Reed is an engaging Harry, handling the gradual shift from nervous to confident to way-out-there with considerable nuance. And he is quite touching in the tender scenes involving Hay's love interest, Rudi Gernriech, the Austrian-born fashion designer later immortalized for the topless bathing suit.

Alexander Strain gives Rudi a good deal of grace and charm, along with a certain poetic depth. Rick Hammerly shines as Bob Hull, the most effeminate of the temperamental revolutionaries, and also the funniest. Hammerly makes Bob so endearing that the revelation of the character's racial insensitivity has all the more sting.

Brandon McCoy offers persuasive work as Dale Jennings, whose arrest galvanizes the other Mattachine members into risky legal action. Vaughn Irving does a solid turn as Minnelli and, especially, as Chuck Rowland, the "philosophical pessimist" in the initial Mattachine group.

The play calls on the performers to deliver periodic bursts of music, from the religious to the campy, which adds color and some endearing moments. The Rep Stage actors embrace this extra challenge gamely.

Director Kasi Campbell offers sensitive guidance throughout and keeps the action moving steadily all over JD Madsen's two-tiered set, which delivers atmosphere with a minimum of fuss -- and with the help of Dan Covey's expert lighting. (I'm not sure the blow-up of a magazine ad from World War II fits the otherwise subtle scenic design.)

There's a clever theatrical flourish before the performance begins. A vintage-looking TV set is active while the audience is waiting.

Snippets of 1950s broadcasts go by, including an alarmist public service film about the gay threat; and a cereal commercial featuring the stars of "Superman," among them gay actor Jack Larson (Jimmy Olsen). The way the TV figures into the now obligatory, pre-curtain turn-off-electronic-devices message is delectable.

Not everything in "The Temperamentals" clicks. The dream sequence that opens the second act adds little to the drama or character development. And the final scene is anti-climactic, slipping a little too much into lecture mode for a lot of what-happened-to-them info.

But nothing gets in the way of the main thrust to the play, its vivid evocation of time and place, its testament to some brave souls determined to crack open the closet door and leave it ajar.

"The Temperamentals" runs through Sept. 16 at Howard Community College's Horwitz Center.

PHOTOS BY STAN BAROUH

Posted by Tim Smith at 1:15 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens, Rep Stage
        

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at baltimoresun.com/artsmash. This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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