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QUEER STORIES

Zebra Crossing Theatre
at Chicago Filmmakers

Though this city has one of the most vibrant theater scenes around--perhaps the most vibrant theater scene in the country--we still have a way to go before our local writers get the sort of exposure now routinely accorded talented local actors and directors. Which is why anthology shows like Queer Stories, especially when they're as intelligent and carefully crafted as this one, ought to be cherished.

Created for Gay and Lesbian Pride Month, Queer Stories gathers together the work of ten local lesbian and gay poets, novelists, and playwrights. Some of the work has been previously theatricalized, most notably Nicholas A. Patricca's poem "Frankie," performed last June as part of an evening of his work--The Idea of Chaos at Key West--during Bailiwick's Pride Performance series. Most of the pieces in this show either were created specifically for the page or were written to be performed in some poetry-slam-like venue. In either case, it was left to director Pamela Meyer to adapt the work for her six-member ensemble.

Meyer has come a long way since her confused, rambling ensemble-created play Lock Up the Grass of six years ago. Not a particularly flashy director, Meyer shows a steadying hand throughout this production, in its overall pace, in the internal coherence of each scene, and in the graceful way the show glides from the serious to the sublime to the ridiculous without losing a beat.

The range of topics in these 21 sketches is remarkably narrow; the majority of them concern in one way or another unrequited love, love gone wrong, and the deaths of friends or lovers. The sheer variety of the writing, however, is breathtaking: everything from Owen Keehnen's straightforward comic narrative "The Hand Model" to D. Travers Scott's consciously fragmented postmodern autobiography "Fifteen Incidents of Sexual Dysfunction" to Achy Obejas's expressionistic playground chant "Knives."

Serious sketches outnumber the comic by more than four to one, though the comic stories are not given short shrift--which has sometimes happened in other shows. In fact, Meyer has structured Queer Stories so that comic bits like Renee Hansen's self-mocking reminiscence about an ex-lover who has become the new-age artist Hansen always wanted to be and Obejas's darkly witty meditation on sexual attraction ("There is no right person," "Fate is a mathematical error") are used the way Shakespeare used comedy in his tragedies, both to lighten things up and to prepare the audience for the next serious beat. The second part of Keehnen's humorous "The Hand Model," for example, falls between Cindy Carujo's story of unrequited love, "Some Love," and Dwight Okita's haunting, surreal poem about the AIDS crisis, "Where the Boys Were."

Of the serious pieces in Queer Stories, the most moving is the company-created "Names." At once evocative of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington and the traveling AIDS Quilt, "Names" consists of nothing more than a line of actors sitting in a row, taking turns reading the names of people who've died of AIDS. Every seventh name or so, an actor stops to reminisce about the last person whose name was spoken.

During one of these reminiscences, the normally controlled and disciplined actor John Carlos Seda was so overcome by emotion that he had to pause in mid-sentence to squeeze the tears out of his eyes and clear his throat, and I too felt on the verge of tears. I can think of no stronger indication of the power and honesty of Queer Stories than that.

MY HOUR WITH SCOTTY AND CRANE

at the Rudely Elegant Theater and Gallery

As a way of introducing Queer Stories Zebra Crossing's artistic director Marlene Zuccaro tossed off the line: "If it wasn't for writers we'd all be mimes."

Would that were true. In point of fact, if it weren't for writers, all actors would be improvisers--God help us. Few improvisational companies ever approach the degree of wit and polish regularly achieved at Metraform's Pup Tent Theatre or Second City's average after-show improv.

Scott Markwell and Brian Crane, both veterans of the recently folded improvisational comedy troupe Booty and Swag, have considerable charm as a comedy team. Not only do they clearly enjoy working together, a fact obvious to anyone who saw Booty and Swag, but Markwell's quick, saucy wit--which, ironically, is strongest before and after the improvising per se in this show--contrasts nicely with Crane's good-guy demeanor. Still, one gets the sense watching My Hour With Scotty and Crane that pure improvisation may not be the right medium for their talents. Though they've both studied with Del Close and, judging by their competent improvisations, have mastered this difficult (if overpopulated) art form, it often seems they're just repeating bits done with more fire and imagination in earlier improvs.

Sadly, mastery of the rules of improvisation does not guarantee inspired work, or even a consistently entertaining show. Crane and Markwell have modeled theirs on the two-person improvisational The Chris Hogan Show, but unfortunately neither actor comes close to equaling Chris Hogan's wild, eccentric wit or John Lehr's grace as a character actor. One gets the sense watching their improvised scenes--some of which are funny, though none is uproariously so--that nothing new is being explored in My Hour With Scotty and Crane.

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