Monday, September 5, 2016

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

This review of At The Flash at Under St. Mark's Theater was written by Dr. Thomas G. Jacoby 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

Sometimes, when it is sufficiently insightful, and surpassingly proficient, theater has the power to astound us. Such is the case with At The Flash, performed by David Leeper and written by himself and Sean Chandler.

At The Flash is essentially the history of homosexuality in the United States over the course of the last fifty years, using a mythical gay bar as a setting. There is no doubt this is a story worthy of telling, but also one fraught with emotion. Like the Holocaust or the Middle Passage, it is a challenge to develop a meaningful narrative without wallowing in bathos or getting trapped in cliche. Until relatively recently, there really wasn't a way for same-sex couples to legally adopt or to bring up children. In addition, there was never a way to guarantee those children would also be homosexual, leaving the gay community in some ways, bereft of continuity. Gay culture tended to evolve in settings outside the family unit, in places such as The Flash, where homosexuals congregated and organized. In a religious or voluntary entity, like the Shaker movement, which practiced celibacy but took in orphans and ultimately died out, this lack of continuity resulted in a finite historical course, while in the gay community, it resulted in periodic reinvention, as reflected in the sequence of characters in the production. Unfortunately, with each period comes a new set of challenges.

Using a one-man show, with David Leeper playing all the characters, At The Flash is theater in its purest form: no props, subtle lighting cues, some music to set the scene. Leeper develops five characters that, when one describes them, are gay stereotypes: Richard, the closeted ex-serviceman of 1965; Miss Sparkle, the possibly African-American drag queen of 1978; Derrick, the promiscuous club-boy of 1989; Mona, the politically active lesbian of 1996; and Rod, the present-day owner of The Flash, a new cafe, bar, restaurant entertainment facility. 

This format allows seamless, incredibly rapid scene changes. We start in the present day, revert to 1965, and jump forward in time, passing through vignettes involving each character, but not always in sequence. So strong is Mr. Leeper's ability that it is nearly always immediately obvious who is speaking, and from that, the audience knows the when. There are approximately sixty scene changes in the production, which would seem dizzying, but here it works very, very well. In some cases, this serves to develop suspense and furnish much-needed comic relief, as when Miss Sparkle describes the scene leaving her childhood home after the death of her mother and a violent encounter with her father segues into Richard unexpectedly encountering a transvestite in the club's men's room.

The stereotypes David Leeper brings to life have to cope with the stereotypical challenges of their respective eras: Richard observes club patrons being beaten at the hands of the police, Miss Sparkle's true love can never enunciate his love and they can never be in public together except in San Francisco, Derek awaits the results of his HIV test, Mona protests the proposed Defense Of Marriage Act while mourning the death of her partner, having been barred from her deathbed by hospital officials since she had no formal familial ties. Present-day Rod faces bigotry as well and has all the challenges of any human being in the modern age. What can't be adequately described is the way Mr. Leeper completely and convincingly becomes these characters: the spoken and unspoken hesitations in Richard's way of thinking about himself and his "problem", the delightful cadences of Miss Sparkle's affected Southern accent, Derek's complaining his circumstances were "more depressing than a mall-perm" as he orders a double-Stoli Kamikaze, Mona's self-deprecating, too-serious "How can I get straight America to open their minds when I can't even get a bar full of queers to listen to me?" Yes, they are characters with little substantive identities other than their homosexuality, but Mr. Leeper makes us care about them and their concerns, and ultimately, their plights. He does this by using the whole stage, consistently orienting in different ways to maintain visual interest and create the differences between scenes, eras, and characters, by altering posture and movement, by being the consummate actor who becomes whatever character the moment demands. It is an amazing spectacle, made moving and profound by his perfection and pacing. No, Mona is not a very convincing character, perhaps because her greatest flaw is her idealism, but the others are stronger because they are allowed to be flawed: Richard in his acceptance of his character that not only habitually deceives others, but also himself; Derrick in his shallow pursuit of sensation; Miss Sparkle in her unrelenting and aggressive physical femininity; Rod, in his self-righteous capitalism. There are lessons to be learned here, not just about the homosexual struggle, but about every human's individual struggle to be themselves in a meaningful way.

If you have the opportunity, see At The Flash. Whether you see it because you are interested in the subject matter, or because you want to gain perspective on the gay-rights struggle, or because you want to see theater and acting in its purest form, you won't regret it. Since the whole play is a series of time capsules, it's easy to imagine At The Flash will still be gripping fifty years from now, especially if it is performed as well as it is by David Leeper.

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