Pink Orchids and The Green Bay Tree look back at the bad old days of 20th-century queer life | Theater Review | Chicago Reader

Pink Orchids and The Green Bay Tree look back at the bad old days of 20th-century queer life 

The AIDS crisis! The evil gay villain!

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click to enlarge Pink Orchids

Pink Orchids

David Zak

In a 2016 column in the British gay magazine Attitude, playwright Patrick Cash confessed to a dick move he committed early on in his dating life, when he was 23 years old. After meeting and hooking up with "one of the nicest people [he'd] ever met," a 20-year-old man who disclosed his HIV-positive status before initiating consensual and protected sex, Cash gave in to fear and stigma the following morning. "His status was why I didn't call up the boy again."

Cash has educated himself about the realities of HIV and the socially harmful effects of misinformation in the years since, but when it comes to pernicious and enduring attitudes levied against people who are poz, it only takes a few seconds of scrolling through dating apps like Grindr or Scruff to see still-normalized qualifiers like "DD-free" ("drug" and "disease," initials jammed together as if they're one and the same moral imperative) and, even more shudder-inducing, "clean guys only."

Originally performed and published as The HIV Monologues, Cash's Pink Orchids employs a series of speeches by fictional nurses, artists, and lovers past and present to bridge the experience gap between those who lived through the catastrophic HIV crisis era of the 80s and 90s with the more protected, albeit still stigmatized poz community of today.

After connecting online, Alex (Jerome Beck) and Nick (Don Baicchi) meet and quickly bond over their mutual interests: Harry Potter, Britney, and gay porn. When Nick divulges his recent HIV diagnosis, Alex's reaction—a botched sitcom-style escape attempt through a bathroom window—sets off a series of personal growth opportunities for both men. It's a testament to Beck's stage presence and charismatic sweetness that his character's dismissive and cruel French exit doesn't write him off to audiences entirely—rather, Cash's slight but moving one-act play sees him through to a more accepting, more educated place.

Brennan T. Jones's production, presented as one part of the five-play PAC Pride Fest, features a number of tender, well-crafted direct-to-audience addresses, including a stirring speech by Kathleen Puls Andrade as an AIDS nurse facing down angry protesters. In another highlight, Nick recalls how he only notices just how filthy he's allowed his bathroom to become while he's stewed in a depressive crisis when he finds himself cowering and sobbing in the shower. Bit by bit, he cleans away the dust and grime— small but critical victory of self-love.

click to enlarge The Green Bay Tree - DAVID ZAK
  • The Green Bay Tree
  • David Zak

Like Pink Orchids, Amy L. Sarno's production of The Green Bay Tree seems ripe for connecting the present with the past-in this case, literally. Written by Mordaunt Shairp in 1933 and adapted by Tim Luscombe, The Green Bay Tree is-or at least can be-a fascinating study of the historic stereotype of the queer villain. A wealthy and decadent man of leisure (Alexander McRae) "adopts" Julian (Bradley Halverson), a much younger man, as his ward. Though a sexual or romantic relationship is never made explicit, the two are clearly written as a couple, a fact made even more clear by the older man's rampant jealousy once a woman enters the picture.

After coming of age, Julian announces his intention to marry a woman (Kristen Alesia). She and his biological father (Gary Smiley) band together to save him from the sinister paternal figure who is dead set on imprisoning the boy in a gilded cage of his own.

This insanely problematic story (and you thought Call Me by Your Name was tricky territory) seems like great material for a heavy-handed satirical take that comments on how far the LGBTQ+ community has come from the stock characters of yore, or maybe it could serve an earnest production that presents an academic study and appreciation for 20th-century theater conventions.

It's not clear exactly what vision Sarno had in mind—from casting (aside from one of them having a shaved head, there's little apparent age difference between the older man and his ward) on down to the actors' evident discomfort being off book, this production is more focused on scraping by with the basics just to make it to the final curtain.

That's particularly troublesome when it comes to the play's comedic quips, which—even when played to a decently filled house—were met with perplexed silence on the night I attended. Inexplicably, long stretches of quiet activities like tea tray setting and flower clipping result in a surreal, fuguelike theatrical state akin to what it feels like to read the webcomic Garfield Minus Garfield.   v

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