by Matthew A. Everett • August 31, 2008 • “Born proud, raised proud, who the hell are we?”
Dan Bernitt’s “Phi Apha Gamma” is a great piece of theater. Bernitt, with just a baseball cap, a script on a music stand, a couple of light cues, and the well-trained tool of his own voice, creates the interwoven stories of four very different, very troubled, young men. The fact that these are four young straight fraternity brothers, men who are each in their own way polar opposites to Dan himself, would be impressive enough if he were just the performer. But Dan also created these four men on the page. It’s an astonishingly powerful exercise in stepping into another person’s skin.
“Phi Alpha Gamma” revolves around the fallout from a violent incident in the fraternity’s past. Aaron, now in prison for gay-bashing a man in the park, writes letters reaching out to an unnamed fraternity brother who was also clearly involved, and for whom Aaron willingly took the full blame. The mystery of that brother’s identity is something I thought I had solved twice along the way, but was happy to be wrong about both times. The solution to that mystery, not just one of identity, but emotional ties revealed, is just one of the rich and satisfying payoffs of this piece.
Patrick is the head of the fraternity, who leads with his gut. Often, he is eloquent, and a good leader of men. But there’s some unsettling biases lurking just beneath the surface. David is the spiritual leader of the fraternity, calm and virtually unflappable. There are always answers handy in the scriptures, to which he refers often, and convincingly. His style of guiding conversation, even argument, is always assured. Jacob is one of the brothers who finds himself at odds with the rest of the fraternity when a brother under his guidance decides to come out of the closet.
This could have been a diatribe against fraternities, religion, even straight people in general. Based on viewing Dan’s previous work at the Minnesota Fringe, “Thanks for the Scabies, Jerkface!,” I wasn’t sure what to expect. That was an autobiographical work, and unapologetically gay. In “Phi Alpha Gamma,” being gay is an issue, a problem, something open to debate. Gay sex, when it occurs, is something violent, and unpleasant. But this is also one of the most thorough and fascinating explorations of masculinity, and what it means to “be a man,” that I’ve seen in a long time. How much, and what kind of, love is acceptable between two men? How much intimacy? How much affection? How close, how intense, a bond is allowed? And is everything fine just as long as no one draws attention to it? These men are all seeking a deeper connection with one another, and frightened of it at the very same time. What are the boundaries, what are the limits? Are there any?
“Phi Alpha Gamma” is a rich, deeply moving experience. Its way with language is by turns poetic, amusing, disturbing, and spiritual, but never less than completely real and believable. The performance flows seamlessly between characters, never drawing attention to itself. It is only after you have time to stop and think about it, that the ease with which Bernitt seems to pull this off fully impresses.
“Phi Alpha Gamma” was the best thing I saw on the opening day of the festival. I’ve seen 14 other shows so far, and nothing has topped it. This is a performance and a script I plan on contorting my schedule for in order to see it at least one more time before the festival closes up shop.
One of the best shows in the Fringe this year.
You can find more information at www.danbernitt.com
Very Highly Recommended
Remaining performances –
Rarig Center, Xperimental Theater
Tuesday, August 5th, 10pm
Thursday, August 7th, 8:30pm
Saturday, August 9th, 7pm
Sunday, August 10th, 1pm
Entering his sixth year of blogging about the Minnesota Fringe Festival (and bringing Mom along for the ride as a guest reviewer), Matthew A. Everett is also a local playwright and three-time recipient of grant support from the Minnesota State Arts Board. Information on Matthew and his plays can be found at matthewaeverett.com.