Get Them to the Church On Time

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LA STAGE WATCH is a series of articles by staff writer/blogger Don Shirley.

‘Tis the season to be site-specific.

Last Sunday afternoon I attended A Big, Gay North Hollywood Wedding, which stages a fictional two-dudes ceremony and the subsequent reception at a real church in NoHo.

A few hours later I was exploring The House of Besarab, a Dracula adaptation that tries to revive site-specific staging at the Hollywood American Legion Post – which was the home of L.A.’s longest-running such production, Tamara.

I like to go to shows that venture outside conventional theater spaces and require the audience to move around now and then. Because I see two shows on most Saturdays and again on most Sundays, I get tired of sitting.

But A Big, Gay North Hollywood Wedding (let’s call it ABGNHW) isn’t just another opportunity to stretch my legs. It’s also the most politically savvy of the many gay-related plays that I’ve seen recently.

<br />Co-writer Ben Rovner, playing Joshua, fends off his ex (Ronald J. Zambor)
Co-writer Ben Rovner, playing Joshua, fends off his ex (Ronald J. Zambor)

That might sound strange, because on one level, ABGNHW is nothing more than a light-hearted, gay take on Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding – minus the heavy Italian American emphasis but with the extra drama of a mixed marriage, religiously speaking. Joshua (Ben Rovner) is Jewish and Brent (Sterling Price) is from a Christian background.

ABGNHW takes place at St. Matthew’s Lutheran, which is so gay-friendly in real life that it includes a rainbow on the sign out front. St. Matthew’s is also the permanent home of Crown City Theatre, which produces ABGNHW. This production uses the sanctuary for the Joshua/Brent service and then turns the normal Crown City black box into a reception hall.

What makes ABNHGW so politically aware, at least when compared to most of the other demographically gay-targeted shows in town, is that it places the subject of marriage front and center. That shouldn’t be surprising, because marriage is the most controversial gay issue of the moment. Comparably newsworthy topics of recent gay history – such as coming out in the ’70s and early ’80s and AIDS in the late ’80s and early ’90s – yielded bumper crops of plays. So why aren’t there more plays about gay marriages or the battle to legalize them?

Consider the concerns of these other currently running gay-related productions:

  • the Celebration’s double bill of Women Behind Bars (Tom Eyen’s 1975 women’s prison film parody) and Oklahomo (Justin Tanner’s 2005 satire of the L.A. small theater scene)
  • Black Leather at the Unknown (Michael Sargent’s glance at one day in the life of a flamboyant early ’80s photographer, inspired by Robert Mapplethorpe)
  • Arias With a Twist at REDCAT (a drag diva’s outer-space fantasy, starring Joey Arias and Basil Twist’s puppetry, ending with soothingly familiar sounds).

I saw all of these within the last 10 days except Women Behind Bars (which canceled last weekend’s performances because of cast illness). They all have at least something to recommend them, but it’s puzzling to see gay-aimed theater so dominated by work that completely avoids dealing with the issue du jour.

ABGNHW doesn’t get preachy. Writers Rovner and William A. Reilly express their political point primarily by making this wedding a lot like other weddings, with little mishaps and embarrassing remarks by colorful supporting players, somewhat exaggerated for comic effect. In other words: how can such a typical, well-meant and generally innocuous slice of human behavior be any kind of a threat to heterosexual marriage or anything else?

Near the end, Brent’s jealous and calculatingly crass best man arranges for a stripper to try to tempt Jason, leading to the newlyweds’ first little fight, as Jason accuses Brent and his best man of indulging in an inappropriate gay stereotype (for hetero behavior along the same lines, see Extinction at the Elephant). Brent’s clearly uncomfortable father tries to use the stripper incident as evidence that such weddings aren’t meant to be, prompting an eloquent response from Brent. That’s about it, as far as messages are concerned.

Of course, ABGNHW probably won’t attract many people who don’t already support gay marriage rights. The title is too on-the-nose for that. Still, it’s refreshing to see any theatrical exploration whatsoever of a subject that has been so oddly under-represented in the wider theatrical scene.

On the other hand, Dracula is hardly a neglected subject. Besides The House of Besarab, at least two other productions in L.A. this year dealt with the cunning count.  In order to make this one stand out at all, the best hope for Terance Duddy’s and Theodore Ott’s adaptation would be to maximize the environmental aspect of the setting, in an old building that is supposed to pass as Dracula’s castle

This effort begins promisingly at the front door, where the ticket taker and a somber “Gypsy Woman” in a wheelchair greet new arrivals and give us protective beads to ward off bad spirits.

Then, as we move into the Legion bar to await further instructions, the Old-World creepiness fades in favor of vintage U.S. military- and Hollywood-themed posters and, perched over the bar, flat-screen TVs broadcasting current programming. This room has its own atmosphere, but it certainly isn’t that of Dracula’s castle circa 1895.

The play itself restores a touch of the Transylvanian mood, abetted by some solid performances. But those of us who saw Tamara will be disappointed by how few rooms inside the “castle” are used, and how some of the scenes might just as well have taken place inside a theater.

The biggest atmosphere-dissipating stroke occurs at intermission, when we re-enter the bar. What concessions are offered to Dracula’s guests? Blood red oranges, perhaps? No.

Dracula’s staff offers sushi – and free popcorn.

I guess we should be grateful. Although the intermission menu abandons any shred of Dracula-style “authenticity,” at least we aren’t forced to go to the other extreme – and bite the bartender.

A Big Gay North Hollywood Wedding, St. Matthew’s Church, 11031 Camarillo St., North Hollywood. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m. Sun. 2 p.m. Closes Dec. 20. www.crowncitytheatre.com. 818-605-5685.

The House of Besarab, American Legion Post 43, 2035 N. Highland Ave., Hollywood. Thur.-Sat., 9 p.m. Sun., 8 p.m. Closes Dec. 20. www.plays411.com/besarab.  323-960-7612.

Photo by Tyler Lueck.

Don Shirley

Don Shirley

Don Shirley writes about theater for LA Observed. He is the former longtime theater writer for the Los Angeles Times, LA Stage Times and other publications.