Quince Productions’ annual LGBT theater festival returns for its fifth year of productions, readings and performances that embrace the diversity of the LGBT community, Aug. 7-22.
This year’s edition of GayFest! features performances by openly gay singer/songwriter Zach Ryan, as well as singer-songwriter Ben Deane, whose “Gay Man in Training: A British Boy in Gay America” takes audiences through the journey of leaving home to grow up as a gay man.
But it’s the theater pieces that this year have the community really talking.
One of the more outrageous offerings is “The Secretaries,” the story of a group of murderous lesbian secretaries working at a lumber mill where lumberjacks start mysteriously disappearing.
Director Jack Tamburri said he wasn’t sure about “The Secretaries” when Quince’s artistic director, Rich Rubin, first showed him the script, but it eventually grew on him.
“I believe it’s been on his mind as a piece for GayFest! for a while,” Tamburri said. “I came to Philly two years ago and I had seen some GayFest! shows and Rich and I became friends. When I saw the script the first time I thought, What the hell is this? But it really stuck with me. The humor and creepiness just really got under my skin. I read it again and thought, This is awesome! It’s right up my alley in terms of this amazing mixture of tones and the combination of deeply unsettling creepiness and really wild, campy comedy. That’s in my wheel house and my area of interest. I’ve done material like that before so that is what really got me on board.”
Amber Orion, who plays one of the secretaries in the dark comedy, said that while the play may appear outlandish on its surface, it communicates a realistic message.
“It’s really a satire on society’s expectations of women and how we’re expected to look and treat each other,” she said. “It’s an absurd world and if we’re going to have these absurd expectations of the way we’re supposed to act, we’re going to lash out secretly. It’s ridiculous but it’s a very scathing commentary.
Orion plays Patty, the “office lesbian.”
“She’s really a letch,” Orion said. “She has no boundaries and spends a lot of time going after the new girls. I also play Buzz the lumberjack. Other actors play other characters voiced offstage but I’m the only actor on stage as two characters.”
Orion said she doesn’t wholly agree with Tamburri’s description of the play as campy.
“I don’t think it’s campy,” she said. “It doesn’t really need to wink at the audience because it’s completely making fun of what’s being said by virtue of it being said.”
Tamburri appreciates that the actors in the play have different perspectives on the content and humor of the story.
“The sort of gymnastic that actors have to do is they have to perform some pretty wild behavior, but they have to ground it in a really intense emotional reality,” he said. “That’s what makes it not just sketch comedy and not just what you would think of camp as. It reaches the high of camp outrageousness but it maintains a profound and quite troubling emotional depth.”
Both Tamburri and Orion agreed that, while the actions of the main characters are extreme, the audience somehow ends up on their side.
“There is a mix of being completely appalled at what they are doing but it’s in such a way where it’s almost endearing,” Orion said. “They are definitely terrible people but it’s so funny that I don’t think you are rooting against them.”
“I think that the goal of the production of this play is to get the audience on board with how far they are willing to go,” Tamburri said. “When the play ends, you blink as if you are just waking up and realize, Oh, I was just rooting for some pretty extreme and maybe reprehensible stuff to go down on behalf of these women. I think that’s a really powerful experience and really fun.”
Another show sure to get audiences cheering is “At The Flash,” the story of the titular gay bar preparing for reopening. Characters from the five decades of the bar’s history tell their stories: a married man, a drag queen, a club kid, a lesbian activist and the bar’s current owner. All of these characters are played by actor David Leeper.
“It’s very fast, upbeat and energetic,” Leeper said. “It’s serious about being maudlin. It’s funny in parts. It’s a hard piece to describe because it’s not a narrative to the audience; there’s no direct discussion with the audience like most one-person shows. It’s really a play that is comedic and heartwarming.”
Leeper said the each character represents a different era of the bar’s history.
“They are really decade-specific. Derek is such an ’80s club kid. In writing about the 1980s, we wanted to address the AIDS crisis without doing a story that has already been told. So everything in the show is about a small moment in their life that shows a bigger piece of the puzzle. With Derek, it’s that fear of waiting for the test to come back and you just don’t know what your future is going to be. Mona is in the 1990s and that political movement where it was a struggle to get anybody involved. Ms. Sparkles was in the post-Stonewall era of ‘We fought for this and we’re trying to make sure everybody knows how hard it was to get here.’ So everyone is very specific to their decade.”
Leeper said that certain characters were more challenging for him to portray.
“Probably Mona,” he said when asked who was the most difficult character to bring to life. “She’s a lesbian activist in the 1990s. She’s very spunky and girly and the total opposite of me. It’s a hard role because you don’t want to offend anybody by playing a girl, but she’s usually the heart of the show. She’s the hardest to find, as far as her physical movements and voice.”
While “The Flash” is a fictional gay bar and not based on any particular establishment, Leeper said that doesn’t keep people from thinking The Flash is really their favorite gay bar.
“We don’t set anything specific with the show,” Leeper said. “The audience fills in what bar it is for them. Even within the five characters, they could very well be different bars, although it’s connected to each other. Everyone kind of fills in what it is in every city that we’ve done it in. People have said ‘Oh, this is The Abbey is West Hollywood.’ In talkbacks, everybody has their own Flash bar.”
Leeper added that the show illustrates that, as times changes and the gay community evolves, there is always going to be a need for places like The Flash.
“The whole show is framed around the current day. “The character Rod has purchased the bar and is trying to bring it back to life after a few decades of it slowing down, making it a new place for the gay community. There’s always going to be that role in the community to have a bar or a place to gather to share in our progress.”
Quince Productions presents GayFest Aug. 7-22 at various venues in Philadelphia. For a detailed list of shows, performances and locations, visit http://www.quinceproductions.com/gayfest.html.