Carrying a Torch

Some might argue that Harvey Fierstein's Torch Song Trilogy is just too old hat to produce today. Groundbreaking as it was in the early '80s, the linked one-acts about an openly gay man's fight for love and respect has become a sort of granddaddy to the gay-themed plays that have inundated theaters in the 14 years since it won a Tony. As sweetly wise as Torch Song Trilogy may be, it was written pre-AIDS, and so is now behind the times.

Too, in the yawningly sophisticated '90s, many would insist that being openly gay is so commonplace that it's hardly worth a mention, much less an entire play. But if we're all so comfy with homosexuality, then why did the coming-out episode of Ellen elicit so much attention? Many Americans responded to Ellen's sexuality in much the same way as the mother of one of Torch Song's central characters, Arnold, responds to his. She slams him with the statement that he's "obsessed" with being gay, arguing that he should leave his sexuality in the bedroom, "where it belongs, in private." In other words, he should march himself into the closet.

Thus we get to a timely question that's central to Fierstein's work: How does one construct an openly gay identity in a world that demands "don't ask, don't tell"? This aspect of gay life is every bit as moving today as it was when Torch Song Trilogy was written -- and that's why it seems a smart (if admittedly safe) choice for Masquerade Theatre, a new addition to Houston's small theater scene.

Masquerade has only been around since April, when producing director Phillip Duggins and artistic director Christopher Ayres found the homely little storefront building on 11th Street in the Heights and went to work constructing the walls and platforms needed to turn the squat room into a theater. Though it's modest by any standards, the space's acoustics are fine, the sightlines are passable and, best of all, the toilet flushes. That the theater be comfortable is crucial to Torch Song Trilogy, since it runs over three hours, even with some of the sizable cuts director Rebecca Randall has made.

The play is a compilation of three episodic acts unified by the characters of Arnold, a drag queen by profession, and Ed, his lover. Act One opens with Arnold kvetching loudly about the woes of loving men, even as he makes himself into a woman. The irony is that Arnold eradicates his male identity as he dons his feminine attire. Even more, Arnold insists that he "wouldn't want no guy that wanted" him in drag. Arnold, who's working so hard to be open and aware, isn't yet fully conscious of the boundaries he puts between himself and others.

Arnold's character is so much a product of Fierstein's own now-famous voice that it's difficult to read Torch Song without hearing his thick New York accent rising up from the page. So it's a credit to Michael Sturdivant, this production's Arnold, that he manages to make the role his own. Sturdivant's youthful, intelligent energy creates an Arnold who manages to occupy the uncomfortable space of the neurotically wise.

Ed, Arnold's sometime lover and the man who is both the cause and the repository of much of Arnold's angst, is also neurotic. But unlike Arnold, poor Ed doesn't have a clue. In fact, Arnold has to explain to Ed that being in the closet (where Ed unhappily resides) is when "the only people who know you're gay are the ones you're gaying with." Chris Jimmerson has the unenviable task of bringing Ed, who's basically a foil for Arnold's more outrageous character, to life. He handles his part with an affable schoolboy charm, remaining likable in spite of his jerkish behavior simply because he appears to be so utterly unconscious of who he is, and what he wants.

Not knowing what he or she wants is every character's problem in this play. Ed gets involved with a woman named Laurel, though the heterosexual life depresses him so deeply that he dreams of dying. Laurel continually falls for "bisexual" men. And Arnold gets involved with a young ex-hustler, Alan. When the four meet up during Act Two, all their doubts and questions come out.

The second act is played on a gigantic bed, which signifies in part the infantile games lovers play. Fierstein weaves together the conversations between the couples, exploring the confused boundaries between Ed and Arnold and their respective lovers. It's in this act that Christopher Andre, as Alan, gives one of the play's best performances. Andre is disarmingly moving, and he appears to be fully engaged with what's happening on stage.

The most disappointing aspect of this production is the direction. The first and second acts are painfully slow due to an endless number of blackouts and costume changes. Indeed, it's during Act Three, when the scene changes are much simpler, that the show takes off.

Still, slow as the early going may be, this Torch Song Trilogy is worth seeing. The play is still funny and relevant. And if that's not enough, how often do you get the chance to see Miss Gay Houston America, Joe Melton, whose soulful singing punctuates parts of Act One?

Torch Song Trilogy will play through September 20 at the Masquerade Theatre, 720 W. 11th Street, 861-7045.


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