KPBS AIRDATE: September 3, 1997
Outsiders and outcasts feature prominently in two very disparate plays, separated by genre and a half-century. The confrontationally comic “Girl Bar” is getting a local premiere at Diversionary Theatre, and the national touring company of the classic musical “Show Boat” is appearing in Orange County. One, written 70 years ago, focuses on racial discrimination and intermarriage. The other, a mere ten years old, shines a glaring spotlight on the lesbian community.
“Girl Bar” is true to its name, a grungy kind of place where lesbians greet, meet and act less than discreet. Playwright Phyllis Nagy, a New Yorker living in London, was very reluctant to release rights to any of her work. But director Gayle Feldman scored a double-coup: Nagy’s disturbingly apocalyptic “Weldon Rising” and her lesbian primer, “Girl Bar.” The rights were only granted if both plays were done in the same season. And so it is. Diversionary mounted a striking production of “Weldon Rising,” and Feldman herself has directed “Girl Bar,” a much less interesting, much more preachy play.
Nagy was specific and insistent about the musical selections in the piece, which are decidedly ‘80s and dated. Similarly, in my brief survey of the lesbian audience, the characters and their lifestyles are a decade behind the times. Our guide in this den of gay denizens is Char, one tough, no-nonsense leather-lady who has a penchant for straight women. Then there’s the ultra-butch Drew; the black, sexy, hooker-looking Jean; an older woman who recently left her husband and son, and a lost academic, searching for connection to dead lesbian writers.
In the first act, we get little snippets of their lives, and a big dose of their outsider status: “We are unacceptable,” they say, “as members of your babysitting corps…. but we’re [okay] as pitchers on your corporate softball team.” The little pickups, meetings and vignettes are funny, but then the second act comes, and each character presents a long, drawn-out, sometimes pointless monologue that makes you forget how humorous the first half was.
The best thing about this show is Linda Castro, one of San Diego’s most consistently excellent actors, who, sadly, is leaving town, so soon that she wont’ even finish the run of this play. Director Gayle Feldman will have a very hard act to follow in taking over her role. Castro is the fulcrum of this piece, and its most credible player. She always makes everything she does seem natural and effortless. The others, though they do a fine job, are somewhat straitjacketed by caricature creations that no longer ring true.
But if you want to get a glimpse into a world that is too often and too easily ignored, “Girl Bar” may provide some enlightenment, even if it is a bit dimmed by time.
Perhaps less dimmed by a lot more time is the great classic, “Show Boat.” When it first opened in 1927, it was a groundbreaking breakaway from lightweight musical comedy and overwrought operettas. Adapted from the Edna Ferber novel by composer Jerome Kern and librettist Oscar Hammerstein II, the story of life on the Mississippi took a hard look at the hard work of black stevedores, while considering marital discord, alcoholism, interracial marriage, and the racial and social tensions of the late nineteenth and early 20th century. Some of the themes aren’t so dated. Most of the music still sounds great. And this 1994 Broadway revival, with its gorgeous, ever-changing sets, beautiful costumes and glorious singing and dancing, won five Tony Awards. But you’ve gotta be sitting up close to feel a part of the action. And that means a big ride and big bucks. But if you love big old beautiful Broadway musicals, it’s worth the trip. Seventy years later, these timeless songs just keep rollin’ along….
(Under and OUT with MUSIC: “Ol’ Man River”
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1997 Patté Productions Inc.