No Laughing Matter 

The Berkeley Rep and Central Works open complementary plays about gay life.

In last year's Carved in Stone, San Francisco playwright Jeffrey Hartgraves dropped a bunch of dead gay writers into a swank afterlife living room and stirred vigorously. Truman Capote, Quentin Crisp, Oscar Wilde, and Tennessee Williams banter, drink copiously, and grill an attractive newcomer who hasn't yet realized that he's A) dead and B) destined to spend eternity listening to his heroes bitching and biting at each other like a sackful of polecats. Occasionally, a quarrelsome Judy Garland shows up to sing. It's pretty loopy, and might lead one to think that being a gay writer in the century bookended by these men's lives was a nonstop laugh riot.

In real life, none of these men had it easy (although reading The Naked Civil Servant, it seems Crisp certainly enjoyed himself). Often, their homosexuality -- or rather, other people's feelings about it -- weighed heavily upon them. The most tragic example is that of Wilde, whose relationship with an aristocrat's son got him slapped with gross indecency charges and sentenced to hard prison time. Although still a young man, he died a few years after his release, broken and spent. While Williams, by contrast, died an old man (although choking on a bottle cap's plastic liner probably doesn't count as a peaceful death), having accomplished much of what he'd set out to do, he also found the straight world unwelcoming, a chill that manifests in such works as Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

Hartgraves' frolic was uncanny in its timing. This year several theater companies are doing lesser-known Williams pieces, and a new company has been formed to explore Wilde's work. So it's not surprising that in one week, the Berkeley Rep opened a fantastic production of Williams' rarely performed Suddenly Last Summer, and CentralWorks teamed with newcomers Wilde Irish to present the West Coast premiere of Micháel mac Liammóir's The Importance of Being Oscar.

Both deal with the homosexuality of their subjects (the dearly departed Sebastian of Suddenly is Williams' doppelgänger), although the word never arises in either. The two works couldn't be more different structurally. Suddenly is the intense, claustrophobic unfolding of a horrific death, narrated by the event's only witness, the troubled Catharine (standing in for Williams' troubled sister Rose). There are seven characters, each played by a separate actor; all the action takes place in one setting, and very little time passes. Sebastian has died under suspicious circumstances while traveling with Catharine. His mother, Violet Venable, wants the true story of his passing, yet if Catharine is truthful, her aunt will have her lobotomized (not so uncommon in 1936 as you might think). Of course, there's more to Sebastian than his hinted-at proclivities. He's also beautiful, controlling, fearful, and emotionally immature; but we only learn of these qualities as the other characters discuss him in absentia.

Meanwhile, Importance features one actor playing multiple characters, takes place in a whirl of real and imagined locations, and stretches over several years. It's also often funny, which can't be said for Suddenly. Importance serves as a primer to the Wildean world, incorporating both the story of Wilde's presence on the literary scene and bits and pieces of his work. Some of his best-loved lines and characters are here, such as "Each man kills the thing he loves" from The Ballad of Reading Gaol and the overheated Lady Bracknell from The Importance of Being Earnest. Unlike Sebastian, Wilde Irish cofounder Arthur Scappaticci's Oscar Wilde is very much in evidence -- especially doing a magnificent Lady Bracknell, flicking an imaginary fan and holding up invisible skirts with pinkies curled just so.

Importance is tough because it's a strange brew -- the text moves from documentary-style narration to poetry before landing smack-dab in the middle of a scene already in progress (such as the Bracknell moment) with little or no warning. Scappaticci has tremendous physical and vocal control, which this jumble sale of a script demands. In fact, Scappaticci's performance makes the projected slides (including an unconvincing animation of Dorian Gray's famous portrait) superfluous.

Visually, Importance could be characterized by the interplay of motion and rest. Scappaticci is here, there, and everywhere -- although he occasionally assumes Wilde's famous lounging-with-a-lily pose -- peopling the small stage of the Berkeley City Club with Wilde's friends, enemies, and characters. Meanwhile Suddenly, one of Williams' more poetic works, is densely atmospheric, a coagulation of dread superbly realized in Annie Smart's set. Smart's oppressive white hothouse is remarkable not only for how well it serves metaphorically but for how effectively it uses the Roda stage, a space that's been challenging designers since it was built. The Roda is much different from the Rep's thrust stage -- it's very wide and deep, and some of the shows done on the Roda have been swallowed whole as a result. Not this one: When the curtain rose on opening night, the audience responded with surprised applause as massive green leaves came into view through the "windows" of the hothouse. The characters are dwarfed by greenery, making them resemble the fruit flies Mrs. Venable refused to keep buying for her son's Venus flytraps after his death -- small and helpless. The set design, nimbly augmented by Chris Parry's lighting, also suggests the bright, antiseptic halls of the asylum where Mrs. Venable hopes Dr. Sugar will "fix" difficult Catharine.

Different as they are, these two plays taken together are a sobering reminder of the terrible misunderstanding and unreasoning hatred that gay people too often have faced. The charges read against Wilde sound so 1890s: "People who can do these things must be dead to all shame." Yet they echo too familiarly against the walls of Williams' 1930s, where Violet Venable will gladly destroy a niece for daring to suggest that her son has anything less than "the highest morals," and they echo too strongly in our own time, where too often gay folk join the party in the celestial living room far too soon.


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