Review: TAKE ME OUT by Richard Greenberg. Produced by Strawberry Theatre Workshop. Direction and Scenic Design and Properties by Greg Carter. Lighting Design by Lily McLeod. Costume Design by Katherine Stromberger Perez. Sound Design by Kyle Thompson. With Nicholas Japaul Bernard, Miguel Castellano, Trick Danneker, Roger Estrada, Josh Kenji, Lamar Legend, Jon Lutyens, Tony Magaña Jr, Craig Peterson, Carter Rodriquez, Dylan Smith. Onstage at 12th Avenue Arts/Capitol Hill from May 23 to June 22, 2019.
Richard Greenberg’s 2002 play TAKE ME OUT is probably best known as “oh…that gay baseball player play” and/or, “oh….that play with all the full frontal male nudity in it!!” It’s both those things, in the most basic sense but the beauty and the power of Greenberg’s work is that it’s much, much more than that. Yes, it centers on the coming out of Darren Lemming, a multi-racial superstar player with the “Empires”, a Major League Baseball team that has won back to back World Series Championships, and how the public and his teammates react to that, but surprisingly Greenberg doesn’t make Darren the gay heroic victim of this coming out process. In fact, Darren is a bit blasé about coming out; he doesn’t let his sexuality be the main focus of his identity. His attitude is: “I’m gay…so what?”
Darren is more focused on his career and winning a third World Series ring than letting his sexuality get in the way of that. And, that’s a refreshing focus for Greenberg to take with this story…the expectation is, that a play about a professional athlete coming out is going to be about the negative reaction to that, and the probably tragic toll that it will take on that specific athlete. Take Me Out does feature tragedy but in a refreshing change, the gay character isn’t the one who ends up as the victim in the tragedy, though Darren certainly does take a center role in what eventually happens.
And, Darren isn’t even the only main character in this story, which features 11 characters, with 5 of them forming the central core of the cast. There’s Darren but there’s also his best friend, Davey Battle who plays on an opposing Major League team, and Kippy Sunderstrom, who acts as a narrator for this story, and serves as Darren’s best friend on the Empires.
There’s also Mason Marzac, Darren’s adorkably geeky new accountant who’s also gay, but awkwardly so, as well as an obsessed recent convert to the beauty and majesty of baseball.
Finally, there’s the antagonist of Shane Mungitt, a severely damaged white ball player who has moved up from the minors. He’s a dynamic player but his backstory is a troubled one, coming from a childhood of abuse and pain. He has racist and homophobic attitudes that creates the tension that drives the main thrust of Take Me Out’s plot. While the rest of the Empires grudgingly accept Darren’s coming out, there are two characters who don’t react so well. Shane Mungitt and Davey Battle, Darren’s longtime best friend. The play ultimately ends up being a triangle with these three men, with Davey’s inability to accept Darren leading to Darren antagonizing Shane which leads to Shane doing something…horrible.
The power of Take Me Out is focused on that dynamic but also on the fascinating points of view from other characters, especially Kippy’s “testimony” on the events that occurred and more humorously, Mason’s fantastic elegiac moments when he breaks down his newly found love of baseball. But,there’s also great moments from other characters including the Japanese player, Takeshi Kawabata who has beautiful moment where he reveals his pain and loneliness of being an outsider in the world of this team. It’s a terrifically well knit play of interesting, complicated and engrossing characters and story lines. And, Greenberg’s script isn’t afraid to let some of the perceived “good guys” be less than ideal; Darren is frequently an asshole to other people and Kippy’s motives for some of the things he does, aren’t always the right ones. And, even the “bad” character, the racist homophobe Shane is shaded with compassion…he’s a toxic male that doesn’t like or understand why he is, the way he is. There’s pathos to his brutality.
So, Take Me Out is a great play…smartly written and much more than just a “gay baseball player” story. It has humor and painful heart and it’s not shy about revealing the good and the bad in its characters. And, Strawberry Theatre Workshop’s production very ably portrays all the play’s strengths with its excellent cast and all of it nicely staged by Strawshop’s founder/artistic director Greg Carter.
The ensemble is superb with strong work from all eleven of the actors but with the principal cast especially good. Lamar Legend is a captivatingly cocky Darren, assured and confident when Darren is in control of situations but also poignantly fragile when he’s not. He’s well balanced with Trick Danneker’s calmly cool Kippy, who nicely centers and leads all the other characters.
There’s also the powerful and terrific one-two punch of the play’s most dynamic characters, or at least the ones who probably have the biggest and most moving scenes to play. Jon Lutyens is delightfully charming as the wistfully worshipful new baseball acolyte Mason, who gets most of the laughs in this play but also brings a lot of heart into it as well. His character is the opposite of Shane Mungitt who is superbly played by Craig Peterson, a raging furious ‘phobe who is tortured by his past and inability to cope with it intellectually or emotionally. The character is hateful but Mr. Peterson’s beautifully nuanced performance shades the character with compassion.
In smaller roles, Nicholas Japaul Bernard gives his Davey Battle a gritty intensity while Josh Kenji’s dual language role, in Japanese mostly but then in a beautiful English spoken monologue in the shower, creates a lovely portrayal of very lonely man in a very strange land.
A quibble…there’s no shower. Or, rather there’s no WATER in the shower scenes; the actors are all miming their ablutions. I get why they probably didn’t do it; running water on a set is complicated and expensive but….if you’re choosing to do a play that features a very specific element that you can’t/don’t want to do, then why choose to stage that play? The production doesn’t fail without the water, but still…I’m required by the Theater Critic’s Code to point it out.
As for the nudity. Yes, there is quite a lot of it…after all, the story is mostly set in the locker rooms/showers of a baseball team. And, 8 of the 11 actors strip down (if you’re keeping count). If nudity BOTHERS you, then maybe not the show for you. If you LIKE nudity onstage, then don’t be a weirdo about it…after awhile, you don’t really pay much attention to it. After all, Take Me Out is a play and a production featuring great writing and beautiful performances and is very much worth seeing and experiencing. If you’re distracted by penises, then just stay home and look at them on the Internet for free. They’re ALL over the damn place.
Review: BOY by Anna Ziegler. Produced by Fantastic.Z Theatre. Directed by Emily Marie Harvey. Costume/Props Design by Jenny Burkley. Lighting Design by Keny Dutton. Scenic Design by Keny Dutton and Emily Marie Harvey. Sound Design by Freddy Molitch. With Drew David Combs, Anuhea Brown, Jamey Cheek, Jane Martin Lynch, Matthew Middleton. Onstage at Theatre off Jackson/International District from June 7th to June 22nd.
Fantastic.Z Theatre has a different kind of LGBTQ play…but, one that deals more with issues of gender than sexuality. And, since I wrote about this play in a preview piece just last week, I’m just going to be lazy and quote from that piece:
It’s BOY, the 2016 play by acclaimed playwright Anna Ziegler about a cis born boy who is raised as a girl but after a complicated childhood and teen years, returns to living his life as a male. The play examines the repercussions of why this happened and the relationships between that boy, Adam, and his parents and the doctor who encouraged them to raise Adam as a girl.
And, it’s based on the true (and more tragic) story of David Reimer, who was born in 1965 with a twin brother, who suffered a botched circumcision that resulted in his penis being badly mutilated. A psychologist, John Money, encouraged Reimer’s parents to raise him as a girl, since Money was an originator of the theory of gender neutrality…that we’re all born neutral but our sense of gender is learned from our upbringing and gender markers…that we LEARN to be male or female from learning how to do so via our family and how we’re treated and what we’re exposed to.
So, David Reimer was castrated (testes removed) and was raised as a female despite the fact he was born male….but, the results of this “experiment” didn’t live up to Dr. Money’s theories despite the doctor’s insistence and his shocking methods of treatment which included forcing the child to to act out female roles and behaviors. But David was rejecting his enforced gender identity by the time he was 9 years old and traumatized by Money’s treatment, he demanded his parents stop the doctor from further treatment. By the age of 14, David reverted to his original male persona and tried to lead a “normal” life but he dealt with serious issues of depression for the rest of his life that led him to suicide when he was 38 years old.
If this story sounds familiar to you, it’s because it’s a famous story that became a best selling book, As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised as a Girl in 2000.
Anna Ziegler has long been fascinated by this story but this play, Boy, that resulted from her fascination takes a different angle than the real story which only served as an inspiration. Ziegler has said: “…the John Money/David Reimer story seemed to lack the particular angle in which I was most interested – a story in which love is the blinding force, as opposed to greed or ambition or cruelty. I wasn’t interested in writing a story about a villain and a victim, but in exploring the complicated terrain of mutual need, love and dependence between doctor and patient, and the problems that arise when someone is desperate to see an experiment succeed.”
And, that is one of the reasons why Ziegler’s play fails….the very nature of Money’s treatment is abusive and framing it within a false sense of “mutual love and need” perverts the story. It also forces the characters into an intimacy at times that felt creepy and pedophilic as “Dr. Wendell Barnes”, the play’s fictionalized version of Money, insists on inserting himself into the emotional life of the David Reimer character, who in the play is born “Sam” then becomes “Samantha” then renames himself as “Adam”. In real life, Money’s treatment was controversial for forcing David and his twin brother to play “sexual/gender role playing games” as part of therapy and as part of Money’s study on gender identity. While Money’s acts seem disturbing and perverse, the fictional character’s demand for emotional intimacy actually seems creepier and more invasive.
The play spares us the ultimate tragic ending of the real David Reimer. Instead, Ziegler flips back and forth between two threads, one of them following the beginnings of Sam/Samantha and Dr. Barnes treating the child from 1967 through 1980, and the other set in 1989/1990 with a 23 year old “Adam” as an adult male pursuing a relationship with single mom, Jenny but failing to inform her of the circumstances of his life and the “gender switches” he was forced to endure. So, the first thread follows a very young Samantha living with her parents in Iowa and visiting Dr. Barnes every few months in Boston while the second details the complicated courtship between Adam and Jenny. And, both of those threads have their problems, as does the play in general. Let’s just list them, shall we?
- The creepiness of the Doctor we’ve already established. The focus on emotional intimacy isn’t a loving one, but a disturbingly and inappropriately intimate one.
- The female characters are all written as dummies. The mom is clueless (but, so is dad, who isn’t given much to do until the end of the play) and so is the girlfriend. Ziegler actually writes the girlfriend, Jenny, like a dumb millennial girl, clueless to everything she isn’t interested in, but the actual character would have been born in 1967 or so and thus would have been Gen X. And, a Gen X female would have heard of Charlie Chaplin and been aware that Clark Kent didn’t have a mustache, both things that Jenny wasn’t aware of. And, even “Samantha” seems stupider than she should be, despite the fact the script makes a big deal out of her reading a lot of books with the Doctor.
- The parents are portrayed as blue collar, stereotypical dumb hicks. So, is Jenny for that matter…Ziegler has set her story in rural Iowa and it’s clear the playwright doesn’t have much respect for, or any actual knowledge of how these people live. The Reimers were actually Canadians and lived in the metropolitan Winnipeg area…they were also Mennonites, something Ziegler doesn’t get into; religion, which might have been an interesting component of the parents as characters, is avoided.
- So is the twin brother who is mentioned but never seen…which seems dumb. The actual Reimer twin brother also was damaged by Money’s treatment. Ziegler seems determined to keep to the modern doctrines of modern play writing….keep it at 90 minutes or so and limit the character count. Because this is now established in play writing classes as the apparent only way to create new theater, it’s creating thousands of terrible plays like Boy that don’t really have anything to say about their supposed characters and themes because it MUST all be wrapped up in a one act 90 minute format. Boy is based on a fascinating real story and Ziegler has no problem with using a lot of that background to fuel the plot for this play, but by committing to this rigid structure, she’s created a work that feels phony and contrived.
For me, the only moments of the play I connected with, happened towards the end of the night. The structure of the play consists of quickly going back and forth between the two threads, in fairly short scenes…but towards the end, the scenes take a bit more time and Ziegler actually creates some interesting and organic feeling moments between the characters. The scene where Adam officially ends his relationship with Dr. Barnes had power and intensity and then later on, there’s a terrific scene between Adam and his dad, Doug, who for most of the play has had nothing to do, suddenly gets a tender monologue about a “perfect day” in his life taking his infant sons for a car ride to get them to go to sleep. That “perfect day” occurred shortly before the family’s life was forever altered by the circumcision accident. It’s a rare, emotionally real moment in the play.
SOOOOOOO, I’ve spent a lot of time on the play’s faults….it also has some merits. The story is, essentially, a fascinating one. There are moments of great tenderness and warmth created at times in the play and this production by Fantastic.Z does a fine job with those moments. We do become invested in these characters and their outcomes. There is a heart to Boy and to the life of Sam/Samantha/Adam. I think the actors do a solid job with defining the characters within the limitations of the script. Of the five, I was most partial to Matthew Middleton’s Dad, largely because of the lovely monologue he gives, that I mentioned above.
The show is nicely designed with a terrific sound/music design by Freddy Molitch.
It’s recommended for audiences interested in the subject matter and discussions about gender identity.