Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Applause! Applause! Review of At The Flash at Under St. Mark's Theater by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens

This review of At The Flash at Under St. Mark's Theater was written by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens and published in Volume X, Issue 6 (2016) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

At The Flash
Written by Sean Chandler & David Leeper
Performed by David Leeper
Directed by David Zak
Under St. Mark's Theater
94 St. Mark's Place
New York, New York 10009
Reviewed 8/19/16

Originally produced by Pride Films & Plays in Chicago, Illinois on November 17, 2012, At The Flash had its world premiere at the Center on Halsted's Hooper-Leppen Theatre. Its West Coast premiere in Los Angeles was at the Celebration Theatre and then Quince Productions brought At The Flash to Philadelphia to be part of GayFest! The International Dublin Gay Theatre Festival then made arrangements for this one-man, one-act show to have its international debut at the Out-House Theater in Dublin, Ireland. Vermont Pride Theater then hosted this production followed by an invitation from the Conejo Valley Universalist Fellowship for a one-night outreach event. 

At The Flash is now being performed as part of the 2016 New York International Film Festival. It takes place in an imaginary gay bar called The Flash that is re-opening as an upscale restaurant and bar. David Leeper, the sole performer who co-wrote this play with his husband Sean Chandler, introduces us to five characters who frequented the bar: Richard (1965), Miss Sparkle (1978), Derrick (1989), Mona (1996), and Rod (Current Day), who is the prime mover behind the renovation. Rod is happily married to a man, has adopted a beautiful child, and is a successful businessman, all things his father told him faggots could never look forward to. Now, on the opening night of The Flash, as Rod handles all the last minute problems that always arise in such situations, he learns his father and mother have decided not to attend, causing him emotional pain and suffering. Perhaps some things never change!

With only pantomimed props and no costume changes, David Leeper successfully introduces us to five unique individuals who hung out at the bar over the decades. Each character is presented as having a unique persona and you get the feeling you've met each of them. That is probably because you have, in one form or another. David Leeper's extraordinary talent is on display not only when embodies each individual character, but also when he rapidly cycles through all the characters in quick succession during one extraordinary monolgue near the end of the show. For much of the 20th Century, gay bars were the unofficial "centers" of the G.L.B.T. community - a place where you could be yourself and feel at home. It is where organizing occurred and was one of the only places you could go to meet others with whom you had this particular peculiarity in common. The play moves back and forth among the characters, in no particular order, but enough time is spent with them so we understand where each is coming from.  

Richard (1965) is a naive, macho, closeted gay man who is married with kids. He curses a friend (who he calls "a pansy ass fucker") for introducing him to gay sex and hates the fact he has urges to be with other men. He risks his job and losing his family by going to The Flash, a place that could be raided by the police at any moment. Shy, hesitant and paranoid, we see Richard meet his first Drag Queen in the men's room and be approached to support The Mattachine Society. He almost has a heart attack when he misplaces his wallet. When he is ultimately arrested by the police, he first claims he was only there to use the bathroom but when he sees the police beat the patrons, he says, "What are you doing? They are not doing anything wrong. We're not doing anything wrong!"

Miss Sparkle (1978) is a colorful, Southern, African-American Drag Queen, who mentors newcomers and performs at the club. The Flash is her home and she takes her work very seriously. When she was young, an older Drag Queen took the time to guide her and now she is doing the same in turn. She explains to a young Drag Queen that "you dress up for yourself and for all the other eyelash heavy bitches - so we can judge you - with love!" Miss Sparkle has had a hard life. She witnessed Miss Shindig being beaten up in a bathroom in Las Vegas and now she is quite ferocious. She explains that "when you fuck with a Queen, you get her scepter right up your ass!" She reminds club patrons to "Mix & Mingle so you don't go home single."

Derrick (1989) is an effeminate acting, alcoholic, club kid recovering from a breakup and worrying what the result of his A.I.D.S. test will be. He is trying to get a friend to go with him to the doctor when he gets the result but hasn't been able to find anyone yet. He is scared and frightened but is on automatic when it comes to looking for a new boyfriend. Emotionally distraught, he says, "As if finding a boyfriend isn't bad enough, now we have to hope we live through it." Derrick uses drugs, drinks, and dancing in a futile attempt to escape his fear and anxiety.

Mona (1996) is trying to get people to sign her petition opposing The Defense Of Marriage Act (D.O.M.A.). She is a schoolteacher who admits to being "a true died in the flannel lesbian" who never dated a boy. Mona lived with a girlfriend who got sick and died. She is still angry the hospital staff would not let her in the room and that she had to watch her girlfriend die alone from the other side of a glass partition. Mona is now an activist. She said, "I don't want to be one of those people that just allows things to shape their lives without paying attention and doing something about it."

Rod (Current Day) sees himself as a success in business and love. His newly renovated restaurant will feature Japanese cuisine infused with soul food. The mainstream press and many political leaders plan to be in attendance. While opening night will offer customers a buffet and an open bar, drinks will cost $15.00 each thereafter. He is forced to deal with an insecure cook and the fact that his liquor distributor got his order wrong. As he says to him over the phone, "I ordered eight cases of vodka and two cases of scotch and what I received was eight cases of scotch and 2 cases of vodka. This is a gay bar, not an English Gentlemen's Club." When Rod's father tells him he is not coming to the opening and hopes he understands, he responds, "No, I don't understand but I guess I'll have to accept it." and then adds, "Does that sound familiar?"

David Leeper gives each of his characters a distinctive voice bringing them to life right before your eyes. He uses no visual aids. We see characters drink imaginary beers, stir unseen cocktails and apply non-existent makeup but given the unique manner in which he carries himself when playing each character, we have no doubt who we are watching at any one time. While the people we meet are specific, they represent easily recognizable, universal archetypes of individuals you may have met in a gay bar sometime during the past five decades. These characters are used to make a larger point, which is that when you have been rejected by family and friends because of your discovered or revealed deviance, the only place left to call home is where other people with similar predilections also congregate, and that has traditionally been a gay bar. If you are black and discriminated against because of that fact, you still have other black people and your family to provide you with encouragement and support. Not so for gay people. If you are too frightened to be seen in a gay bar, you might be forced into parks or bathrooms to meet others for anonymous sex. But if you do find a bar you can call home, you will probably develop a strong attachment to it, and "just for a flash," you will be happy!

At The Flash introduces you to a slice of gay history that may be well-known to those who went to gay bars over the years but for those who avoided gay bars for fear of being seen in one, this play will introduce them to a few people they probably should meet. In the present day, it is considered cool for straight couples to go to gay bars and drag shows. In addition, many of the bartenders in gay bars are now straight and there are fewer and fewer hustlers working out of them. It is a whole new world! Gay marriage is universally permitted in the United States. There is no fear of police raids. Same-sex couples dance together in public! Who could have predicted it all would have happened so soon! At The Flash gives you a glimpse into gay history when gay bars were one of the very few places those who were different could call home. Whether you see this play or not, I strongly suggest you take home its message to "be proud of who you are" and "don't let no one tell you otherwise!" Tickets cost $18.00 and can be purchased at http://www.FringeNYC.org 

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