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COLOR ME EDWARDO

Edward Thomas-Herrera

at the Avenue Theatre, March 15, 16, 22, 23, 29, and 30

Color Me Edwardo, a performance made up of poems by Edward Thomas-Herrera--some of which were already staged as part of his Tango Edwardo last year--is often quite charming, but Thomas-Herrera's uneasiness about how he wants us to view him and the work undercuts his own efforts. Is this supposed to be just kicky fun, a work in constant progress, or something more serious?

Thomas-Herrera's work occupies that blurry space between performance poetry, in which poetry's the game, and performance art, in which concept's the game. But unfortunately he doesn't seem to play to the strengths of either genre. Instead of adopting one or the other wholeheartedly, he hangs his poetry in Color Me Edwardo on a rather flimsily articulated idea about the end of the world. The result is a piece that's tentative at best and shallow at worst.

This is too bad, because Thomas-Herrera has considerable talents. A classically handsome man who deliberately plays against type--he could have gone the Rock Hudson route but chooses Jerry Lewis instead--Thomas-Herrera has presence and flair. He's blessed with a face that, with one twitch, can make the house roar. There is a great fluidity to his physical humor, probably best exemplified in this show when he dances a tango with a coat tree--a piece of choreography that brilliantly implies poignant Hollywood dreams.

At times Thomas-Herrera has used to great advantage the touch of the effeminate about him--the limp wrist, the sassy swish, the mischievous eyes full of sexy insinuations. He's no queen, but his campy, theatrical gestures have often fallen, if not squarely into the stereotypical, then into the classic. But unfortunately he does everything possible in Color Me Edwardo to suppress those impulses, to control the fagginess. I suspect this is, at least in part, our fault at the Reader. A review of Thomas-Herrera's show last year (by another writer) was headlined "Almost a Woman"--a clear misunderstanding of gay-male cultural imperatives. Effeminacy is not the same as wanting to be female. Thomas-Herrera was justifiably angry, but he also seems to have let the headline get the best of him. In Color Me Edwardo he has again put a biological female onstage with him for most of the show--but this time it's as if to deflect any possibility that he could be seen as female or feminine, as if to ensure he'll be deemed masculine, if only by comparison.

Mindy Hester acts as a sort of prop for Thomas-Herrera in Color Me Edwardo, but she's completely unnecessary. Indeed, the show's strongest pieces come when Hester's offstage. Not that Hester's bad--it's just that she doesn't do much but give the pieces a little ornamentation. And most of the time her presence is actually damaging: it diminishes the camp, stealing the gay essence of the work and implying an oddly timid heterosexuality.

Pieces such as "Clytemnestra's Lament" are clumsy with Hester onstage: Thomas-Herrera tries to project onto her a feminist persona that doesn't really work. For starters, she doesn't have much to do while he recites his lines except sit there looking demure and somewhat spacy. Thomas-Herrera seems to miss the irony of telling us about a strong woman who never, ever speaks for herself. And he projects an emphatic sexuality on Clytemnestra's persona that seems to have more to do with the perspective of a gay male than of a woman (regardless of her sexual orientation).

The Clytemnestra piece is atypical, though, in that it's in the third person. For the most part Thomas-Herrera writes in the first person and from what we can assume are mostly autobiographical perspectives. But in these pieces too Hester's presence is problematic: when he says, "I'm too much of a lady," for example, it's hard to tell whether he's speaking for or through Hester's female persona or for himself. Without Hester, that line would have a whole different resonance--a real bite, which here is obfuscated by her presence. (And the confusion's obviously a by-product, not deliberate.)

Which brings us to Thomas-Herrera's poetry. While his writing is often quite sharp and his use of language delightful, he seems more attuned to the current follies of the local scene than to his own heart. And that's a shame, because he is a far better writer than most of the local performance-poetry stars--many of whom have found closer kinship with the laugh riot, with the moral vacancy of stand-up, than with literature or art of any kind. In this competitive and chaotic world, Thomas-Herrera's romantic impulses could come off as corny.

Consider his very funny piece "Homage to a Brunette Muse," about Marlo Thomas during her That Girl phase. Thomas-Herrera willingly admits the absurdity of his obsession with her and is clear-eyed enough to note that Ann Marie exists in a New York that's antiseptic, pollution-free, and "full of white people." But when he then adds that he wanted to be her "so bad," he lacks the self-confidence--or the courage, maybe--to step up to the mike and tell us what that means, what it says about him, a Latino gay male.

Certainly to write what's there, just under his skin--you get glimpses of it all night, then he winks as if to say: hey, didn't mean to get deep--Thomas-Herrera would risk not being cool, perhaps being sentimental, possibly being made fun of, being dismissed by the current performance-poetry establishment. But trusting his heart--stripping the bullshit from the show, the girl, the flippancy after every bit of emotion, the pretense that he has some big concept about the end of the world--then we would see the very real, very smart, very funny, very talented, very sexy gay man that is Edward Thomas-Herrera.

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