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By Donald V. Calamia
Posted: Nov. 17, 2012 at 6:25 p.m.
Growing up and finding your place in the world can be a very scary process. That's especially true if you're a 20-year-old kid from Iowa who shows up in Chicago with no place to live, no job, and no clue about your future. But luckily for Evan (Michael Lopetrone), a chance meeting in a candy store with "everyone's best friend" Michael (Jamie Richards) results in an invitation to a party that changes the course of his life forever.
For Evan, who just came out of the closet, both a new decade and a new life are calling to him, but a bumpy road lies ahead. For theatergoers attending "The Homosexuals" at The Ringwald Theatre in Ferndale, however, the two-hour-plus journey provides marvelous insight on what it means to be gay in 21st century America.
The aforementioned party opens the two-act play. It's a brief moment, designed to quickly introduce – at least visually – the audience to the story's seven characters and offer a brief peek at things to come. Playwright Philip Dawkins then whisks us 10 years into the future – to 2010 – where we arrive at a pivotal moment in Evan's journey. The plot then unfolds backwards in two-year increments, until we return to the beginning – which, with all the details filled in, now makes sense. It's a plot device used quite well here, since the audience is provided with only the information it needs to deconstruct the events that lead to Evan's life-changing decision.
What that decision is, of course, I won't reveal. But it's a logical one for a young man whose close (and incestuous) friendships have defined his existence since arriving in the Windy City.
At its core, "The Homosexuals" is about gay men finding their families in the close friendships they develop. Reminiscent of such signature gay plays as "The Boys in the Band" (1968) and "Love, Valour, Compassion" (1994), Dawkins' script updates both from a 21st century perspective, creating an intriguing analysis of how times have changed for gay men over the intervening years and how young gay men today view their sexual awakening. To do so, Dawkins employs archetypical characters – not stereotypes – to bring his story to life: the obnoxious theater queen (Peter); the successful lawyer (Collin); the lusting artist (Mark); the sexy, hot, HIV-positive guy (British Mark); the sweet guy unlucky in love (Michael); and the liberal fag hag (Tam).
And, of course, there's Evan, the hot and naive young stud who all the men want to date. Or have sex with. Or both.
Hence, the problem Evan faces: As the youngest (by far) and newest member of this merry band of friends, the cutie finds himself – for better or for worse – on everyone's menu. And therein lies the show's drama.
On paper, all of Dawkins' characters are well conceived. On stage, however, in the expert hands of director Annette Madias, they become flesh and blood – real people many of us know, each with a unique mix of flaws and charms.
In other words, they become like you and me – no matter what our sexual orientation might be.
Madias' strength is to dig into the nuts and bolts of her characters and discover what makes them tick. That's certainly true here, thanks in no small part to her excellent instincts on whom to cast for each role. (What I believe is doubly impressive is this: Unlike most directors who work regularly at a particular theater, Madias is returning to the business after a very long layoff and was likely unfamiliar with most of the actors she cast in her production.)
Every actor was at that the top of their game on opening night.
The handsome, nicely built and furry Robbie Dwight adds sexual heat to the show – especially early in the first act when his character, British Mark, spends much of the time romping about in a pair of skimpy briefs.
The show's most political character, Tam, is written as the play's "voice of reason." Lisa Melinn's energy is infectious; Tam's love for her friends is palpable.
Both Joe Bailey's Mark and Jon Ager's Collin have moments to shine. Bailey, especially, packs a powerful punch driving home the stark contrasts between gay men of different generations.
Three other performances, however, deserve special mention.
Jamie Richards gives what is likely the best performance of his long, notable career. Keeping vigil next to Evan's hospital bed, "everyone's best friend" – but no one's lover – Michael says far more in silence than most are able to with words. A tug at your heartstrings is guaranteed.
Then there's Lopetrone's Evan. He's sweet, he's somewhat shy – and he has a lot of growing up to do. And it's that roller coaster of emotions that the actor allows us to see – but in reverse, which probably isn't very easy. (He's the only actor who appears in every scene; most find him paired with only one other actor.)
The signature performance, though, goes to the always-amazing Joel Mitchell. A force of nature in every show he appears in, Mitchell tackles aging theater queen Peter with the same fierce zeal that has made him an audience and critical favorite for more than a decade. While Peter's tough exterior seems impenetrable, Mitchell allows glimpses of his softer side seep through, creating a well-rounded character that could easily succumb to stereotype. His bombastic performance starts with his entrance – something I thought I'd never see: Mitchell on roller-skates wearing the brightest red pants and scarf ever conceived. The color certainly matches Peter's fiery personality, made all the more vivid by Mitchell's spectacular performance.
Madias' moves the characters about the stage quite nicely, with a sweet touch that keeps the audience and characters engaged during scene changes.
The show's technical elements are among the best I've seen at The Ringwald. The set by Katie Orwig evokes characters and designs made famous by artist Keith Haring's "Ignorance = Fear" poster, printed in 1989 in response to the AIDS epidemic. Joe Plambeck's lighting serves the show well.
But most impressive is the sound design by Plambeck and Madias. Since many of the scenes involve references to the Tony Awards – a "must follow" for older gays and theater critics alike - each is framed with show music from each scene's particular year. (The play starts out with "A Little Night Music," for example, which earned nominations in 2010 for Best Revival and other awards.) Add to the mix excellent sound effects, and the result is a design to be proud of!
If the show has a flaw, it's a script that could use a little shortening.
As Collin says towards the end of the production, "Tonight is about friends." And so too is the play itself. Gay, straight or somewhere in between, count yourself lucky if true friends are at the core of your life. And while they may not be as colorful as Evan's, they do help us become the people we're meant to be.
SHOW DETAILS: "The Homosexuals" continues at The Ringwald Theatre, 22742 Woodward Ave., Ferndale, Friday-Monday through Dec. 10. Running time: 2 hours, 18 minutes. Tickets: $10-20. For information: www.TheRingwald.com.
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