The Temperamentals at the Blank

The Temperamentals, a 1950s-era euphemism for homosexuals, is an affecting play that attempts to humanize LGBT history, highlighting the earliest attempts to organize gays and bring them from second-class citizens to a group with political power.

The play focuses on Harry Hay and a group of his Los Angeles friends who together formed what would become the Mattachine Society with the goal of protecting the homosexual community and improving its civil rights.

The play begins with that fateful meeting between Hay and his soon-to-be lover, Viennese costumer Rudi Gernreich. Infused with snappy dialogue and a bit of film noir-ish style, The Temperamentals features Dennis Christopher effectively channeling Hay’s flamboyant persona.

Erich Bergen’s Rudi is a perfect match and through the pair’s onstage chemsitry one can easily see why Hay and Gernreich would eventually fall in love. However, at times, the play tends to slip into sentimentality and various moments at which the actors speak directly to the audience don’t work as effectively as they might. Still, The Temperamentals manages to entertain while it educates.

Surprisingly enough, many gays in the community incorrectly point to Stonewall as the starting point of the gay rights movement, but it was in November of 1950 that Hay along with Gernreich, Dale Jennings, Bob Hull, and Chuck Rowland held their first official Mattachine Society meeting in Los Angeles under its original name, “Society of Fools.” The society, modeled after the Communist Party, first attempted to rally open public support for member Jennings after his arrest in a bathroom on a charge of lewd behavior.

Jennings denied any wrongdoing and the group’s strategy of bringing attention to the issue of police entrapment of homosexual men, who would often plead guilty in hopes that their lives would continue with as little publicity as possible, brought much needed support to the Society.

All of these events and the ultimate decline of the group in the late 60s for being too traditional are depicted in the play with great enthusiasm. The cast includes Mark Shundock as Chuck Rowland (who later went on to form the Church of ONE Brotherhood and in 1982 founded Celebration Theatre here in Los Angeles),

John Tartaglia is Bob Hull, and Patrick Scott Lewis plays Dale Jennings. Director Michael Matthews has a strong cast with these five actors, who collectively minimalize the few shortcomings of Jon Marans’ script. With a little tightening up, the play will truly soar.

Performances through May 22 at The Blank’s 2nd Stage Theatre in Hollywood. For tickets and information, please visit www.theblank.com or call 323-661-9827.

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The Merchant of Venice Starring F. Murray Abraham

The world of merchant banking/security trading is a perfect setting for this touring production of William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice.

F. Murray Abraham reprises his now-famous role of Shylock from the original 2007 production directed by Darko Tresnjak and presented by Theatre For A New Audience.

Set in the high-powered world of Wall Street at some indeterminate time in the future, this Merchant focuses less on the sympathetic interpretation of the anti-Semitism hurled at Shylock, and instead focuses on the inner complexity that makes him both relentlessly vengeful and redeemable as a tragic figure, humanizing him as something more than a stand-in for a whole ethnicity.

John Lee Beatty’s stark ultra-modern scenic design featuring MacBooks, flatscreen television screens and a minimalist set makes it easy for an audience to grasp Tresnjak’s point: anti-Semitism has remained a constant through history, yet there is something in Shakespeare’s treatment of it that makes it relevant, regardless of the milieu in which his play is set.

Marlowe’s “competing” play from the same era, The Jew of Malta, features a violent and evil title character with very little humanity, Marlowe’s character reels in the worst anti-Semitic stereotypes, while Shylock, in both Broadway’s current traditional staging and in this post-Bernie Madoff vision is profoundly human: dark and complex, simultaneously sympathetic and repulsive. Abraham does an excellent job of bringing out those layers that reside deep within Shylock’s psyche.

Not that he’s the sole villain of this play. Antonio (Jonathan Epstein) is equally conflicted and Epstein subtly goes about portraying Antonio’s own hatred for Shylock and Jews in general without restraint while exploring another layer of overt unrequited adoration (homosexual love?) for his beloved young friend Bassanio (Graham Hamilton.)

Let’s not forget Portia (Kate MacCluggage), who is a bit racist and has no problem pointing out her repulsion for the dark skin of one of her suitors (Raphael Nash Thompson). She voices her racism to Nerissa (Christen Simon Marabate) who, pointedly is herself black. The unspoken hypocrisy in which this scene revels speaks volumes. That racial through-line is completed with the portrayal of Lancelot Gobo by another black actor, Jacob Ming-Trent, comically spewing and rapping anti-Semitic sentiments towards Shylock.

Tresnjak’s ultra-modernist reading of the play, a success in every respect especially thematically reminds us how human nature has a lethal tendency to remain the same. We’ve come a long way as far as our technology is concerned, but we still have a long way to go if we’re to put our differences aside.

Performances at The Broad Stage in Santa Monica through April 24. Visit www.thebroadstage.com or call 310-434-3200 for tickets.

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