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Glass Mind Theatre reaches for bald emotional honesty-with some success

Bret McCabe

April 16, 2014

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The All-American Genderf*ck Cabaret

Written by Mariah MacCarthy

Directed by Susan Stroupe

Presented by Glass Mind Theatre at Gallery 788 through April 19

At some point in Glass Mind Theatre's current production, don't be surprised if you start worrying that this scrappy show has the cards stacked against it. New York playwright Mariah MacCarthy's The All-American Genderf*ck Cabaret sometimes feels like an identity-politics seminar repackaged into afterschool-special vignettes-and it's going to last for more than two hours. The play is an ostensible exploration of gender stereotypes that frequently traffics in such stereotypes. It's a production that flirts with camp but does so only to land a belly-laugh joke. Gallery 788's second-floor space is an imperfect stage, where a tech crew makes due with a lighting setup that only offers a few well-lit pockets. And even with such limitations, the tech crew sometimes doesn't appear to be on the same page as the production and a scene's lighting is out of step with the blocking. So yes, there will come a moment when you might wonder if you've committed yourself to an overlong, amateurish production that can't decide if it is "deconstructing gender" with a wink or a straight face-and when that feeling washes over you, stick with it a little longer. Genderf*ck is all of the above, but it also surprisingly potent, unafraid to reach for a kind of emotional honesty that underground DIY theater rarely tries to pull off.

Credit the cast and director Susan Stroupe for that saving grace. Genderf*ck is a hodgepodge of genre appropriations that make it a bit tonally schizophrenic, putting all of its narrative cohesion on the shoulders of the cast. Fortunately, this crew is mostly up to the challenge. The play follows eight archetypes-four women and four men-as they fret about those eternal young-adult anxieties: sex, relationships, sex, who they are and how people perceive them, sex, and, oh yeah, sex. Genderf*ck is self-aware enough to recognize that so much sex on the brain puts it in teen-comedy terrain, and the play toys with that notion throughout. The sex this comedy is concerned with isn't simply the biological mechanism of trying to make this body part come into contact with somebody else's body parts. Genderf*ck wants to talk about how the touching-body-parts part of sex informs how people are perceived and behave in every other aspect of their lives.

The story, such as it is, swims around its four women. The conventionally heterosexual Allegra (Sarah Lloyd) is worried that she hates sex. She's in a relationship with the woman-chasing Adrian (Vince Constantino), who is both the roommate to guy's-guy Dick (Jarret Ervin) and is sleeping with Gwen (Siobhan Beckett) on the side while pursuing Devon (Sarah Weissman), a tomboyish personal trainer. Gwen is in a relationship with the effeminate Benji (Sam Hayder), who lives next door to Allegra. Benji works-methinks, it's a bit confusing-at/near the same place as Kate (Jessica Ruth Baker), a man-hating radical lesbian (see: "stereotypes, traffics in," above), and at some point nearly every woman goes to see DJ (Alexander Scally), a gay hairdresser (ditto).

There's also the androgynous Taylor (M. Hicks; Glass Mind's character list for press stipulates that the company has been using the gender-neutral pronoun "they" for Taylor), who performs the master-of-ceremonies role in this cabaret. Taylor is the chorus/narrator to characters' misadventures, adding sound effects and clarifying and/or comical asides. Each character gets a brief Taylor intro that somewhat complicates the assumptions based on their archetypes: the gay DJ still gets mad when people find out he likes baseball; the effeminate Benji, who people assume is gay, is actually spectacular in the sack; the manly Dick is a virgin; the super-fit Devon hasn't been laid in over two years.

So far, so eye-roll. Things start to gather speed when Kate delivers a lecture wondering why "pussy" is a colloquialism for cowardice while "balls," the slightest graze of which is enough to turn a man into a whiny little baby, is part of the euphemism for courage. It should be the other way around, Kate argues, and Baker dives into this hysterical discussion with a reserved glee. She doesn't have to overplay the comedy because the hyperbole is built into the script. Baker nails this scene, finding a way to make MacCarthy's heavy-handed script not feel so, well, heavy-handed.

Nearly every character has a similar moment where he or she takes the play's overstuffed raw materials and makes it sing. Lloyd's Allegra is a high-wire act of mannered flightiness camouflaging crippling insecurity, and Lloyd has Judy Greer's gift for letting little bursts of needs-to-be-medicated neurosis erupt through the façade Allegra maintains to navigate the world. Benji is a comic gem, as Hayder understands that some of the play's punch lines rely on his facial reactions and physical responses.

And there's a wealth to respond to here. Adrian hooks up with Gwen, who is avoiding Benji, while Dick worries about his nephew wanting a Pomeranian for his birthday, and Kate finds herself being attracted to Taylor but can't decide if she is a he or if he is a she or if that matters at all and why should it? Eventually they all end up a bar for '90s night. Cue cheesy dance scenes. Cue the tomboy Devon appearing in a dress and makeup, which Taylor introduces as "Devon's makeover entrance from every chick flick ever."

Hicks' knowing commentary prevents the play from becoming a drag and makes Genderf*ck feel like watching Melrose Place with a really witty political-theory grad student. That casual attitude ends up being a secret weapon. The play's second act is a plunge into darkness-a sexual assault, a beating, an unvarnished look at alcohol-fueled desperations after last call-and the silly, almost nonchalant lead-up to all this is disarmingly effective. It creates the impression that such things-rape, violence, really bad decisions-happen in day-to-day life, among people who know each other, who might seem harmless, who might even be considered friends. Weissman shines during this stretch, saddled with the difficult task of dramatizing Devon literally fighting through pain. Genderf*ck eventually pulls out of this turn into the serious and settles back into its stereotypes and superficialities-but the bleak middle casts enough of a poignant shadow to make the play linger on the brain afterward.

One final note, and this is directed to the small group of people sitting toward the back who insisted on chatting almost constantly through the second act. Yes, Glass Mind encouraged a carefree cabaret atmosphere during the play, but sheesh. If you can't respect the performers you came to see enough keep your traps shut long enough to hear what the cast is saying, do everyone a favor by staying home instead of showing your ass in public.

For more information, please visit glassmindtheatre.com.