Tuesday, March 25, 2014

TENNESSEE WILLIAMS Returns to New York! "The Two Character Play": A Review

"The Two Character Play": A Review

True to its name, there are only two players in "The Two Character Play", one of Tennessee Williams' so-called "later" works that is enjoying a rare and much-deserved revival courtesy of New York City's 292 Theater.  As it turns out, the number of characters may just about be the only thing we can be sure of in this truly unique theater experience.  To say that 292's production gives respect to Williams' original artistic vision is only the beginning.  The play, directed by Romy Ashby, features a pair of actors who take on the two difficult roles with gusto. This isn't escapist, "feel-good" theater-- at least not in the classic sense.  With its searing psychodrama laced with black humor, the play draws you into the characters' goldfish bowl of a world to the point of being just a bit disturbing. 

Claire (Regina Bartkoff) and Felice (Charles Schick) are middle-aged sister and brother.  They live in a house that may have once been eccentrically charming, but is now just dilapidated and cold, both literally and figuratively.  Claire and Felice are also actors, and we learn (or, at least, we are TOLD...) that they have been abandoned by their traveling theater troupe.  Nevertheless, the siblings decide to rehearse and revise their long-gestating performance piece-- the "two character play" of the title-- to an imaginary audience.  The result, for you and I (the actual audience), is a "theater within a theater" experience which will inspire more mystery than revelation.  Being actors, we never truly find out what is real and what is acting.  At one point, some truly dark family secrets are confessed as Claire engages in a phone conversation with a holy man.  She is so convincing that we think her story may be real. Or is she just a good actress? If it IS real, it would certainly explain a lot about why the she and her brother are the way they are.  Still, we never really find out.  In fact, EVERYTHING about Claire and Felice's lives-- and subsequently, the story-- comes into question.  Are their decaying surroundings their "real" home, or is it the theater set?  Is Claire mentally unbalanced, or is Felice?  Or, are both of them a bit detached from reality?  Are the characters' situations and stories real?  Is it a script?  Or is everything they say and do part of an impromptu performance piece of sorts that unfolds and changes in real time? Maybe it's a combination of all of these.  The actual audience is constantly wondering and searching for clues until the very end.

Upon its initial unveiling to audiences, "The Two Character Play" was described by some critics as "plotless", "absurdist", and "difficult to follow"-- and it was a commercial failure upon its premieres, in various forms, in the 70's.  Unlike so many of Williams' earlier and more famous works, this play is rarely produced today.  Yet, some historical perspective is called for: By the 1960's, Williams was drifting towards a different style of writing, and neither audiences nor critics were quite willing to accept his "new" artistic pathway.  It is worth speculating, then, that many of his later, more renegade plays may have been dismissed en masse by audiences and critics rather than being judged individually by their own characteristics.  Had "The Two Character Play" been written by a lesser known author, it may have been regarded as a bold experimental piece which continuously challenges the audience, and one that would no doubt start some lively after-theater conversation and debate when the curtain fell. (It surely did with THIS writer...)  On the other hand, a large part of the play's appeal is the fact that this was indeed one of Williams' most personal and autobiographical pieces, by both the author's own account and by the observations of his peers.  For that reason alone, the play is a must for fans of Tennessee Williams-- both the man himself and his body of work.  When the characters speak about life in the theater-- a world of its own, governed by its own rules-- it is blatantly obvious that Williams was speaking from an insider's voice.  The same holds true for the characters' sense of isolation, confinement, and their possible blur between what is real and what is fantasy.  We see how the tortured soul (of which, as we know, there are MANY in Williams' works...) often finds himself/herself trapped in a situation not because they want to be, but because they know no other way.  Claire states near the play's final moments, "I realize now that the house has turned into a prison... but it's not a prison that is unfamiliar with us".  The intimacy of the 292 Theater (20 seats) works perfectly to enhance the characters' assorted neuroses. 

Again, "The Two Character Play" challenges the audience in a big way.  While we're on the subject of challenge: It is a real test of one's acting talent and dedication to be in a play with only two characters who are on stage for the entire running time.  Both Bartkoff and Schick pass that test with flying colors.  Bartkoff's Claire may seem like the more showy role of the two at first.  Indeed, the actress' big, penetrating eyes alone can speak a thousand words with one expression, even in scenes when the lighting is dimmed.  When Claire glares at Felice from across the stage, she may as well have been firing a cannon.  As the equally eccentric Felice, however, Schick requires just as much and sometimes even more acting energy to keep up with (and, at time, compete with) his tempestuous yet fragile sister.  As we learn in the program, Bartkoff and Schick are real-life husband and wife.  Their real-life closeness is nicely translated into an overt chemistry on stage together, although the relationship between the characters they are playing is unsettlingly co-dependent.  In "The Two Character Play", Williams does not give us the easy sense of closure at the end that we may have been hoping for to "explain" things.  (After all, we know how theater-goers love a nice, neat conclusion, don't we?)  By the final scene, however, when we have to pick whether Claire and Felice are living in delusion or in reality, the selection may become a little bit easier. Thanks to the expert cast and direction, the road to whatever conclusions we ultimately reach is fascinating to watch. This revival is highly recommended.

"The Two Character Play" continues Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8PM through April 12th at 292 Theater, 292 E. 3rd Street, New York City.  For more info and tickets, visit   

Monday, March 24, 2014

Movie Review: "Southern Baptist Sissies"

Movie Review:

"Southern Baptist Sissies"

As anyone familiar with life in the Bible Belt can... ahem, "testify", much of the Southern Baptist culture revolves around religion.  Appropriately enough, many of the scenes in the new film "Southern Baptists Sissies" take place in a church.  It is in that setting that we hear one of the earliest lines by one of the four titular characters: "For God so loved the world!  Ironic, huh, because THIS is where we learned to hate ourselves."  As you may have guessed, the powerful and often controversial themes of being a Southern Baptist, of being gay, and of how the two inevitably collide are explored in the film.  The result is laugh-out-loud hilarious and cry-out-loud heartbreaking, often at the same time.  The audience is moved when the characters describe their struggles with their relationship with the Church.  Yet, just when things get too serious, we are treated to the hilariously boozy banter between barflies Odette (Dale Dickey) and Preston, AKA "Peanut" (Leslie Jordan) at a gay bar.  An example is when Jordan, in his inimitable style, delivers the one-liner: "I'm just a social drinker.  You have a drink, 'so-shall' I!"  Another is when a religious hymn segues into the drinking classic "99 Bottles of Beer". The long-anticipated film version of Del Shores' provocative play is now playing, with much acclaim, on the film festival circuit.  The movie may well be the playwright/culture vulture's most precious work to date.  He wrote, directed, and produced the movie, which was incarnated as a filmed live performance.  However, there's more to it: The story itself is also a deeply personal project.  Viewers who are familiar with Shores' life-- specifically, his Bible Belt upbringing-- will likely see the main character of Mark Lee Fuller (Emerson Collins) to be largely based on the teenage Shores himself. 

"Southern Baptist Sissies" opens with what seems like a "Saturday Night Live"-style musical parody: While a preacher gives a fire-and-brimstone style sermon, four young men (Mark, Benny, TJ, and Andrew) sing a hilariously corny religious song.  The quartet of young men are "four sissies in the Cavalry Baptist Church" (four out of 40 boys, incidentally...). The film chronicles the different pathways each of these boys take on their journey of self-discovery in the Southern Baptist world.  It's a world where, for example, one character who asks "How can love be wrong?"  is given the deadpan answer, "Because God SAYS it is!"  Even one of the boys who seems to be the most well-adjusted of the four, Benny (William Belli), speaks about how his culture is part of him: "Being raised Baptist is like some kind of chromosome or something.  It's engrained-- part of my fabric, part of my makeup."  Still, Benny finds some level of transcendence in doing drag, and it is to the audience's delight that he does.  As "Iona Traylor", Benny's drag persona, Belli's high-energy spiritual numbers really liven up the movie, as does the play/movie's musical zenith, "Stained Glass Window". Sadly, not all the boys find their niche in this story.  The dramatic climax of "Southern Baptist Sissies" involves another character's conflict of faith ultimately leading to tragic consequences.    

The film, like the play it was based on, will likely be considered controversial-- not only because of its unflinching exploration of religion and sexuality, but also because of one character's self-described "blasphemous" revelation about how his first same-sex crushes were Jesus and Elvis ("King of the Jews" and the "King of Rock 'n' Roll").  Still, the character's confessions are so keenly funny that it's hard to be offended.  Like Del Shores' one-man live shows, the humor in "Southern Baptist Sissies" is always based on our culture's own idiosyncrasies-- not the least of which is our culture's own hypocrisy.  We want to "keep the faith", and want to believe that "Southern Baptist Sissies" will have some kind of resolution: some sense that the characters' suffering has a promissory ray of hope at the end.  Indeed, the movie ultimately makes good on its promise, but it tears your heart apart in the process.  Luckily, it also tickles the funny bone just when you need it the most.

"Southern Baptist Sissies" is now playing in select theaters.  Visit for locations and showtimes! 

Monday, March 17, 2014

KAREN WYMAN: "The Second Time Around"

"The Second Time Around"

"I waited 40 years to sing this song.  You gotta be a grownup!", declared Karen Wyman before breaking into the Harold Arlen/Johnny Mercer standard "Come Rain or Come Shine".  It was only one of many musical gems in Ms. Wyman's new show "The Second Time Around", the singer's long-awaited major return to performing in 25 years.  The venue was the New York City cabaret hotspot The Metropolitan Room.  In a way, the show was a "can't miss" from its conception: an expertly-chosen selection of crowd-pleasers by Jerry Herman, Cole Porter, and many others sung by a lovely lady who knows how to "bring them on"!  The audience knew just when the big moments of those songs were gonna come... and when Karen Wyman gave us those big moments, they sounded every bit as great as we were expecting them to be.

The Wednesday evening show opened with a black-and-white screen shot of "Miss Karen Wyman" alongside nightlife legend Dean Martin in the last year of the sixties, when the wide-eyed 16-year performed on Martin's TV show.  The look in both their faces in that photo is no less than magical.  Apparently, Martin was bewitched by the teen's vocal skills: He referred to Karen as "the most beautiful voice in a long, long while".  The song that Wyman performed that memorable night in 1969 was "Hurry! It's Lovely Here"-- a true anthem for the upcoming, much-anticipated spring season... and, as the singer entered the stage, the audience was sprung forward to 2014.  Wyman's voice is just as strong and unblemished as ever; her delivery and onstage presence is dynamic; and her joy of performing really shines through.  She declared shortly after her entrance: "This is OUR second chance, OUR second take, OUR second life!" before launching into "Second Time Around".  Given the story behind Wyman's career, the song couldn't be more fitting.  Indeed, Wyman did occasionally (and mirthfully) touch upon the reasons for her hiatus from performing.  However, after hearing her hit some truly bold notes in "The Best is Yet to Come" or her triumphant and joyful take on Cole Porter's "Night and Day", the reasons for her initial rise to fame became damn clear.  (To put it another way: True talent never really goes away!)  A prime example of the "adult" Wyman was heard in her rendition of "After You're Gone".  It was smooth, sultry, and sexy-- and her delivery of the song increased slowly in its intensity like a coming storm.  Indeed, she can BELT!

Wyman was accompanied by a three-man band, but opted for adornment by piano alone for "Where Do You Start?"  The heartache and joy of the lyrics, as well as the emotion on the singer's face, was brilliantly spotlighted by the Metropolitan Room's intimate setting.  The song segued into "A House Is Not a Home", where Wyman's voice alternated between that famous belt and a more ethereal, almost girlish tone.  The mood of the set turned playful a bit later with Wyman's tribute to her idol and fellow Bronxite Eydie Gorme, with some closet classics just aching to be heard again like "Blame It on the Bossa Nova".  When we hear Wyman's stunning performance of Irving Berlin's "Always", we think that this is indeed the musical crown jewel of the night... until the breathtaking final number.  (And no, I am not saying what it was!  But I will say that Wyman revealed that when she first sang it at age 16, she couldn't give it the justice it deserved.  Today, she can...)

That night, Karen Wyman's audience at The Metropolitan Room ranged in age from twenty-somethings to those who likely remember seeing her on TV as a teen singing phenomenon.  The age range was vast, but the delight was unanimous.  We can only hope, to borrow from one of the songs performed that night, that "The Best Is Yet to Come" from this star. We'll be waiting!

"The Second Time Around" continues at The Metropolitan Room, 34 West 22nd Street, on Wednesday March 19th and the 26th at 7PM. For reservations, call (212)206-0440.  For more info, visit

Friday, March 14, 2014



Del Shores  is indeed a man who wears many hats.  He is a film director and producer, a television writer and producer, and a popular performer in his own right.  Shores' smart and hysterical one-man shows prove him to be one of America’s most talented raconteurs.  Still, most people know Shores best from his colorful resume of theater work,  several of which have become cemented in American GLBT culture.  The first play Shores wrote was “Daddy's Dyin': Who's Got the Will?” which debuted in Los Angeles in 1987 and was made into a movie in 1990.  Shores wrote the screenplay and executive produced the feature.   One of his most popular and well-known plays was his fourth, "Sordid Lives", which debuted in 1996, also in Los Angeles, and is still being performed to this day.  Like “Daddy’ Dyin’”, “Sordid Lives” was also made into a film which endures as an LGBT cult classic.  In 2008, Shores produced 12 prequel episodes of “Sordid Lives: The Series”, which became the neophyte GLBT network LOGO’s first original series. 

“Southern Baptist Sissies”, which was first produced in 1999, may be Shores’ most personal work of all. The play tells the story of four gay boys who are growing up in the Southern Baptist Church, and how they each deal differently with the conflict between the teachings of the church and their budding sexuality.   The play has been produced by over 30 theatre companies across the country, and has won countless awards.  In 2006, a national tour starring Leslie Jordan, Dale Dickey,  and Delta Burke played to sold out houses across the country.   The long-awaited movie version of “Southern Baptist Sissies” has finally arrived, and its message has not diminished one iota since it was first written.  In fact, the film and its themes about religion, sexuality, and self-acceptance are stronger than ever in 2014.  This film-- which stars  Emerson Collins, William Belli, Luke Stratte-McClure, Matthew Scott Montgomery, and (YES!) Dale Dickey and Leslie Jordan--  is a highly stylized, sharply produced  live production of the actual play.  Like the stage production, "Southern Baptist Sissies" the movie is alternately laugh-out-loud funny and heartbreakingly provocative. 

Del Shores spoke with me about "Southern Baptist Sissies"' road from stage to screen... plus lots more fun stuff!

JR: Hi Del!  Congratulations on the long-anticipated release of "Southern Baptist Sissies".  The play was first produced in 1999.  What was the most challenging aspect of the journey from the stage to the screen?

 DS: Getting it made!  We tried for so long and finally Emerson Collins, my producing partner and star of the film, came up with the brilliant idea to film the play.  I'm very proud of this film: the uniqueness of it, and that I can share the message broader.
JR: While watching the movie, I was alternating between laughing hysterically and crying hysterically.  What was it like for YOU to finally see the completed film yourself?
 DS: Well, first of all the word "relief" come to mind, because it really does work.  I was worried that the stage version wouldn't translate to film.  But I must admit, I still laugh and I still cry too.  This play just means so much to me.
JR: The movie was created as a  filmed theater piece, complete with a live audience.  Is there a reason you chose this way to create the movie in this style?

DS: Budget.  I adapted the script.  Financing feel apart in 2007.  Back then, the budget was 1.6.  We were able to crowd fund this picture and make it for 180K-- because we all worked for minimum, because of our passion, and because we worked our asses off.  We shot this film in 10 days.  It would have never been made if we had not done it this way -- and of course, without that amazing cast and my hard-working crew!
JR: Wow!  So, "Southern Baptist Sissies" has been described by some as "controversial".  Did you ever feel that the play, with its explorations about The Southern Baptists and homosexuality, was deliberately trying to break any taboos or "stir the pot" as they say?

DS: I knew I would.  It's in my nature to stir the pot.  On my Facebook page, the "about" section reads, "Playwright, director/writer of stage/TV/film, stand-up, gay and human activist, actor, sh*t stirrer. WELCOME - unless you are a hater of humanity!"  Sometimes the pot needs stirring, don't you think?
JR: ABSOLUTELY!  And I'm happy that you're the guy to do it!  So, I am gonna take a wild guess that Mark, the main character and narrator, may be at least partially autobiographical.  Am I right?!

DS: You are correct, my friend.  He's just younger, cuter and perhaps smarter than me.
 JR: (Laughs)  So, for those of us who didn't grow up in the Bible Belt or who have never even visited there, it may be very hard to believe that the lifestyles and beliefs of most of the characters in the play and film still exist in 2014.  Based upon your experiences, has there been any progress or enlightenment in the Southern Baptist Church since you were raised there?

DS: With some, yes.  Putting a face on "gay", so many coming out, mainstreaming us in media, and the march towards equality has helped. BUT, because of that, we also have seen the haters - who know they are losing this war - take to their pulpits and their political platforms... and out of FEAR continue to spew hate in the name of the Lord.
JR: Yes... How sad is that?  So, how has the response to "Southern Baptist Sissies" been so far?

DS: AMAZING!  We have played 25 festivals and won 15 awards, nine of them being audience awards.  We have just started our theatrical release and for the most part, the reviews have been positive-- but more importantly, the audiences seem to love the film.
JR:  That's great to hear!  So, let's leave off with something fun: As your fans know, you have a very active and playful presence on social media... with both adoring fans and sanctimonious critics alike.  What's the most funny... or crazy... or scary... interaction that you've had lately?!

DS: Well, you know I love to answer those who cherry-pick scriptures... and being a preacher's kid, I can fling scripture right back at them, proving I can cherry-pick too.  I guess lately, my favorite, which I now read in my standup, was when Cathy from Arkansas wrote me and quoted that tired old Leviticus "abomination" bullshit, then told me I was going to hell.  I went to her Facebook page, saw her picture, then quoted a few scriptures on gluttony (she was a large woman): I told her I had no problem with her weight, but the Bible did -- then I quoted 1 Timothy 2:12 "I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet."  I informed her that I was a man, a gay man, but a man and according to the Bible - NEW TESTAMENT - she had no authority over me and was to remain quiet.  Then, I added the stinger -- "And if you don't understand that, Cathy, my cherry-picking, sanctimonious, so-called Christian, here's my translation.  SHUT THE FUCK UP!"   My fans loved it-- and of course, I didn't write it to change her heart, because we know that is probably not going to happen.  I wrote it so my fans would be entertained and to show them that I have their back!
JR: (Laughs) Well, it worked!  Thank you for speaking with us, Del!

DS: Great talking to you!!!

"Southern Baptist Sissies" is now playing in select theaters.  Visit for locations!

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

THEATER REVIEW: MADE FOR EACH OTHER: One Actor. Four Characters. Endless Emotions. ...and a little bit of Cole Porter!

One Actor.  Four Characters.  Endless Emotions.
 ...and a little bit of Cole Porter!

In its relatively short running time of about one hour, Monica Bauer's new theater piece "Made For Each Other" packs a real emotional wallop. Directed by John FitzGibbon and starring New York City actor John Fico, the Award-winning one-man show is basically a love story between two gay men: Jerry (a down-to-earth nurse) and Vincent (a closeted teacher).  It's a comedy/drama with a touch of Cole Porter-inspired music and dance thrown in.  The play kicks off with Jerry proposing marriage to Vincent via the phone after the third date-- prompting one of the men to shrewdly comment about whether gay men want to get married just to have pictures of themselves in matching tuxedos on Facebook. Indeed, the humor of "Made For Each Other" is based on the reality of relationships in 2014-- which, as we all know, is not always a fairy tale. "Made For Each Other", which opened on Valentine's Day 2014 at New York City's intimate Stage Left Studio, actually features Fico in four roles.  In addition to playing the roles of the two men contemplating the next stage of their relationship, he also plays Jerry's beloved departed grandfather, as well as Vincent's elderly mother-- who is suffering from Alzheimer's Disease. Both are important characters as well, and the play features some unique observations on how our departed (either in body or mind) loved ones may communicate with us in our daily lives.

John Fico is great fun to watch in all four roles.  Even the lighting, simple as it is, helps to fully develop the characters.  As Jerry, the restless male nurse, speaks about his new creative awakening, he is lit up like a beaming Broadway newbie hearing his first applause.  The laughs in "Made For Each Other" come from the honesty of the situations and the smartness of the dialogue.  Just when you think the play is going to drift into cliche, then-- Presto!  It goes in another direction.  The surprises continue to the final scene, which is a stunner.

"Made For Each Other" continues at 214 W 30th Street, 6th floor, New York, NY 10001, on Fridays at 9PM.  You can buy tickets and get more information at for more info.     

(All photos by Katie Rosin.)

"FOREVER FIERCE" Benefit in NYC Raises Funds for LGBTQ Youth!

"FOREVER FIERCE" Benefit in NYC Raises Funds for LGBTQ Youth!

On Saturday, February 1st, 2014, The Care Bears
International Daddy Bear 2009 Joe Mannetti and Mr. Rawhide NYC 2011/Mr. North American Bear 2012 Jed Ryan presented "Forever Fierce", a benefit for the New York City-based organization FIERCE. The event was organized with the participation of ONYX Northeast President and Lead Organizer of FIERCE John Blasco. The frisky fundraiser was held at the West Village Bear/Leather hotspot Rockbar and featured live performances by Mr. Eagle 2013 Arsenio Amadis, Justice LaBoy (lead singer of modern rock band Mad for Justice), and"Queen of the Bears" Candy Samples. Also in attendance were The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, celebrity/fashion photographer Mr. Paddles NYC 2013 Rob Ordonez, and the men of ONYX, the national Leather fraternity of Men of Color. Of course, Rockbar's fun and furry staff and equally hot and hairy loyal regulars were there as well.

With music by iconic
DJ Chauncey Dandridge, "Forever Fierce" climaxed with New York City nightlife guru Chris Reed's infamous "Bear Chest" Contest. The event was the third fundraiser created by The Care Bears, and over $1000 was raised for FIERCE that night.

is a membership-based organization building the leadership and power of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) youth of color in New York City. For more information, visit



On Saturday, February 8th, Mr. Eagle NYC 2013 Arsenio Amadis and Mr. Connecticut Leather 2014 Omar L. Boots presented the first ever "Leather Care Ribbons" fundraiser in New Haven, Connecticut: a benefit for AIDS Project New Haven (APNH).  The highly successful event was held at the Malaysian restaurant Bentara and included a family-style dinner, live entertainment, raffles, and handmade leather red ribbons for sale with all proceeds going to APNH.  Performers that night included Empress MMXIII of The Imperial Sovereign Court of All Connecticut Morgana De Luxe, Lucia Virginity, Shaun Casey, and Arsenio Amadis himself.             

Omar L. Boots described how the event came to life: "At the beginning of my title year I made a list of things to do during my title year-- including charitable events and activities to reach different groups of our community: Leather, non-Leather, drag queens, and all the LGBTQ people, including people of color and Latinos... and also to interact with the straight community.  I believe that Title holders can make a positive difference in our community.  It was my idea to start an annual Formal Leather Dinner event in Connecticut to collect funds to help HIV/AIDS organizations. So I presented my idea to Arsenio about making all of this happen: starting a campaign to promote the Leather community and HIV/AIDS awareness; fighting the stigma; promoting love; and helping other organizations who need our help.  He agreed, and invited me to become part of Leather Cares Ribbons.  Arsenio and I will be working together on future projects to keep Leather Cares Ribbons going.... and to increase public awareness. There are no limits of how far we can reach... There are always places and people who need our support!"

A total of $1021.00 was raised for AIDS Project New Haven to help continue their mission: providing education, non-judgmental, comprehensive & holistic services to individuals infected and affected by HIV/AIDS. Chris Cole is Executive Director of AIDS Project New Haven.  He stated, "APNH is extremely grateful to Omar Boots for hosting the Leather Cares event in New Haven to benefit the programs and services of AIDS Project New Haven. Events such as this, hosted by members of the community, are essential to APNH. They raise awareness and make it possible for us to provide services to individuals living with HIV in our community. AIDS Project New Haven continues to look for non-traditional venues for HIV testing so that we can identify individuals who are unaware of their status and get them into care. Once in care, we are committed to working with all of our clients to help them take the best care of themselves, stay engaged in their healthcare and overcome any and all barriers they may have to full engagement in living a full and healthy life." 

Omar L. Boots concluded with, "I'm blessed that I got to know really good Leather brothers and sisters who have opened their arms and made me feel welcome since I started my journey as a Leatherman. For this same reason I want to welcome all to our Leather community and share our experience with others."

For more information about AIDS Project New Haven, visit