Grecian Formula '80/So Many Dreams | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

Grecian Formula '80/So Many Dreams 

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Bailiwick Repertory


at Randolph Street Gallery

"Young man, put your pride on the shelf," bellow the Village People in "YMCA," the disco trash classic that opens Bailiwick Repertory's world premiere production of Grecian Formula '80. Rick Bromley, the hero of Fred Gormley's comedy, is a young man who puts his pride on the shelf to work in a gay porn film. Attracted by the money and by the notion of starring in a sex epic, Rick accepts the role of a Greek king in a little something called Slave Boys of Athens. The job is his, the director explains, because he can actually pronounce fancy words like "pomegranate" and "Dionysus" (though he, or the actor playing him, does mispronounce "coprophagy"). It helps that Rick says he's "pretty open" about sex acts such as fist fucking and water sports as well as more standard fare. But once shooting begins, Rick's elaborate and rather witty onscreen speeches are trimmed in favor of blunter dialogue by the egomaniacal director, whose notion of a good joke is a pun on "vassal" and "Vaseline," while Rick's openness is tested quite literally to the hilt.

Rick--a surrogate for playwright Gormley, who claims this story is based on his own experience--is no sexual superstar; he's an average, reasonably nice-looking, middle-class gay yuppie caught up in the 1970s trend to glamorize pornography, even elevate it as a cinematic art form. This was the era of The Devil in Miss Jones, the time when gay filmmakers like Fred Halsted and Peter Berlin were proclaimed as sex-cinema auteurs and well-established novelist Gore Vidal was hired to write the screenplay for the Penthouse-produced 1980 film Caligula. (Gormley seems to parody that famous fiasco in his depiction of the director's whimsical disregard for the script--Vidal eventually disowned Caligula, and the author of Slave Boys of Athens quickly vanishes from sight after delivering his screenplay.)

Gormley's anecdotal account clubs away at the pretensions that surrounded the erotic cinema of the 70s with blunt lampoons of the egos, envies, and exploitations that dominate the Slave Boys set. The art director bickers with the cinematographer, the cinematographer bickers with the director, and the producer is nowhere to be seen. The celebrated star, Jeff, is as dumb a piece of meat as you'd find this side of a butcher's display case; he hides his prematurely bald head under a ratty blond Prince Valiant wig and winces in irritation when his domineering mother (one "Magda Crance") forces her way onto the set to make sure things are right for her boy. Jeff doesn't even like gay sex much; for scenes of anal penetration he's replaced by a "stunt ass," a nice young man who, upon being informed that his services are suddenly needed, asks his buddy to "call my wife and tell her I won't be able to pick her up at the K mart." And so it goes.

Gormley, by trade an art director, is a fledgling playwright--this staging, part of Bailiwick's gay- and lesbian-oriented Pride Performance Series '91, is the first full production of any of his plays--and his inexperience shows. Like many of the films it satirizes, Grecian Formula '80 is wobbly and out of focus much of the time. It's a work in progress, and the effects of plentiful cutting and changing show in the less-than-secure performances director Luther Goins has coaxed out of his ten-man cast as well as in the unclear intentions of the script. David Hessert is engagingly eager as Rick, but his one-note niceness grows tedious by the time he reaches his big scene (when he must declaim a long pseudoclassical monologue under the influence of downers). Brent Ries mugs his way amusingly through the role of Cat, the preening cutie-pie costar who's always trying to make his part bigger. The funniest and most vigorous performance comes from Scott Swenson as mama Magda; and when the saltiest and sexiest performance in a play about a gay male sex film comes from a drag queen, you know you're in trouble.

Still, Grecian Formula '80 serves well as a portrait of a pivotal point in time, evoked by the title and by the disco-diva recordings that cover the too-frequent scene changes. The play's action is bookended by a pair of recorded telephone messages that refer to two key events of 1980. One is from Rick, joking about the election of Ronald Reagan as president; the other is from Rick's ex-boyfriend, explaining that he can't come over to pick up his belongings (they've just broken up) because his new boyfriend has come down with some weird bug that's been going around--AIDS, of course, though it had no name then. I'm told that this final AIDS reference has been eliminated since I saw the play--as I said, this is a work in progress--but I think it should be restored; it effectively underscored Gormley's depiction of a particular world and mindset in their deteriorating final stages.

The cast of Grecian Formula '80 is entirely white, by the way. I don't know whether this is called for by Gormley or is merely a happenstance of casting; I mention it because it reminds me of a statement by Essex Hemphill in his introduction to Brother to Brother: New Writings by Black Gay Men, a forthcoming anthology he edited. "The post-Stonewall white gay community of the 1980s was not seriously concerned with the existence of black gay men except as sexual objects," Hemphill asserts. Certainly the porn films of the 1970s and '80s contained few black actors; a minority of films specifically promoted black studs to a certain audience, but integrated casts were exceedingly rare--a reflection of the gay community as a whole. While white gays were forging cultural as well as sexual solidarity, blacks felt cast aside from the gay community; but they also were stifled by the prevalent homophobia of the black community, which compounded society's general stigmatization of homosexuality with demands that black men act like "men" to resist cultural castration in a racist society.

Hemphill's So Many Dreams, a collection of his poetry and prose fashioned into a performance piece, addresses a profound sense of isolation felt by black male homosexuals in America. In the selections that make up this hour-long work, Hemphill assumes the role of an outsider. He--or rather Larry Duckette, who speaks Hemphill's words with deceptively conversational, coolly focused restraint while a candle flickers gently at the side of the stage--rarely talks about what he's feeling or what's happening to him.

Instead he lets us infer those feelings as he talks about things happening to other people. One sequence describes in legendary terms a Washington, D.C., cruising ground "where the seed of gay men was once spilled with reckless abandon"; now, in the age of AIDS, it's "a tomb of sorrow." Later the speaker recounts an incident on a Washington bus--a quarrel between two black men apparently headed home to bed. The speaker repeats isolated phrases from the quarrel: "You gonna pay for this dick!" "I ain't payin' for that tame shit!" and so on; we, like the speaker, can reliably but not certainly suppose that one of the men had asked the other for cash in exchange for sex, less as a way to make money than as a way to preserve his masculine self-image. "All the homosexuals on the bus have frozen," says the narrator, describing the moment. "So have I." Later, the narrator remembers his infatuation with another macho man: "I had no intention / of being another queen / Looking out / at the morning rain," he says (making sly reference to Aretha Franklin's "Natural Woman"). He reflects on lovers "mocking me with muscles, erections, and wives."

When the narrator speaks openly of his feelings, he sounds rather academic, self-consciously well-spoken: "The black homosexual is hard pressed to gain audience. . . . We constitute the invisible brothers in our communities, those of us who live 'in the life.' . . . Through denials and abbreviated histories riddled with omissions, the middle class sets about whitewashing and fixing up the race to impress each other and the racists who don't give a damn." It's almost the very end of the show before Hemphill's inferred passion and overt intellect connect in a unified statement: "I need the ass-splitting truth to be told, so I will have something pure to emulate, a reason to remain loyal."

Though not the only writer devoting himself to expressing a black gay vision, Hemphill is certainly a leading figure in his field; So Many Dreams could generate much more emotional power if Hemphill broke through his artful alienation earlier, but as it stands it's a provocative piece that certainly needs to be heard.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Peter Taub.


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