Theatre Pro Rata is staging a brand new play in Minnesota’s oldest cemetery. Fear not, no desecration of graves by actors or audience is going on. Pro Rata has all the elements down—from the volunteer and enormous banner at the front gate, to the parking, to the weather updates and warning to bring bug spray. The gravestones used in the action of the play are merely very convincing props. The ground beneath both performers and spectators is currently unoccupied. But the journey to the playing space, and back out again at the end of the evening, past the real graves, is certainly evocative. Did Lindsay Harris Friel’s play Traveling Light demand this site-specific treatment? Probably not. I could imagine it living just as simply in a regular stage environment. However, director Natalie Novacek has used the cemetery setting very effectively. It’s an interesting experiment that pays off. Definitely worth communing with nature for.
Two gay men meet in a graveyard in the middle of the night. But it’s not just any gay men, and it’s not just any night. This is England during the Summer of Love, 1967. The two men are incendiary playwright Joe Orton (Wade A. Vaughn), and Brian Epstein (David Beukema), who discovered the Beatles and managed their early career. But even though Britain just decriminalized gay sex between consenting adults, that’s not what these two men are after tonight. Just as well, since two police officers—Constable McDonald (Shannon Troy Jones) and WPC Foster (Rachel Finch)—are out patrolling among the graves.
Epstein is seriously considering killing himself, and he’s got a full pharmacy’s worth of prescription drugs in his suit pockets to help him do it. Under his leather jacket, Orton has a copy of a screenplay in his back pocket—a screenplay he wrote for the Beatles at their request, which Epstein rejected without comment. Orton is in pursuit of a little constructive feedback, if the cops don’t catch them first.
|traveling light, presented through july 28 at the minneapolis pioneers and soldiers memorial cemetery. for information and tickets ($14-$41, sliding scale), see theatreprorata.org|
Hanging over all this is the historical detail that a few weeks after this fictional meeting, both men would be dead—a fact that is recounted at both the beginning and end of the play by WPC Foster. Orton had his head bashed in with a hammer by his lover. Epstein died of a drug overdose, which was ruled an accident. The script for Traveling Light posits that these two men met, formed a bond, and might even have been able to save one another from their worst instincts, if only they’d had a little more time.
Friel has written a very clever play, sometimes maybe too clever for its own good, but it’s still enormously entertaining. The dueling wits of Orton and Epstein as channeled by this playwright are able to amusingly torture both the English language and one another, as well as the occasional police officer as the situation warrants. All four actors do a really great job of delivering all this banter, and doing so in a way that can be heard in this vast outdoor situation—which is no small feat. The acoustics in this case could easily be the play’s undoing but the cast does fine work in counteracting that. There are many times when it feels surprisingly intimate, in terms of the relationship of actors to audience.
The real challenges with the production are nearly all script-related. The play ends at least six different times. Not that each of the endings aren’t entertaining, or satisfying. It’s the fact that each of the endings work so well by themselves that you feel the play is over well before it actually, finally ends. Since it’s only a 90-minute production, that’s not a great offense. But since we’re outdoors, once the sunlight fades away and the bugs are out in force, it’s almost as if Nature itself were saying, “OK, really, you’re done now, show’s over, end already.” It’s one of the dangers of an author who is clearly in love with the subject, and has fully researched it. The desire to share that love and research is almost impossible to resist—and Friel doesn’t resist it.
The final, final monologue is beautifully rendered, but completely unnecessary. When Orton and Epstein leave the field, the play is over. Foster told us they died at the beginning. We know what’s coming. Having Foster bookend the story makes structural sense, and describing the deaths in greater detail has more resonance now that we know the two corpses as human beings with a sense of hope. But again, unnecessary. The audience is smart enough to connect the dots from Orton’s death to Epstein’s suicide. It’s clear that they give one another inspiration and hope that both they and their lives can be better than they currently are. Once Orton is gone, Epstein unravels.
Also, with all these British people running around outdoors, echoes of Monty Python’s Flying Circus are inevitable, and run counter to the play’s desire to take its characters and their situations seriously. Yes, there is much laughter, but no person should be actually laughable. McDonald’s big surprise at the end seems to come at the expense of his character, and his viability as a threat. By contrast, his reveal regarding his upbringing just prior to that is far more ominous, and subtle—explaining parts of his character with a great deal more nuance. Why choose to undercut that?
Though much is made of the persecution of homosexuals, the only sexual blossoming or satisfaction in this play is experienced by a heterosexual woman. Orton and Epstein never kiss, and rarely even touch over the course of the production. I’m not arguing for hot man-on-man action among the tombstones, but a little intimacy would have been nice. I could have used a little more erotic in the middle of the homoeroticism. At times it felt like one of those spoofs In Living Color used to do about all those movies where the white people were saving the black people and single-handedly ending apartheid in South Africa, “My White Conscience.” Straight people as both enemy and potential savior, and there in the background, the tragic lonely gay men, destined for destruction in a world that did not understand or accept them. Layer on top of that the men liberating the women and, well, the politics all just seemed a little off-kilter.
But, all that said, it’s still well worth congregating on the grass in a graveyard to watch it all happen and mull it over. Well worth covering yourself in bug spray for an hour and a half. Traveling Light is a smart script, smartly done. It’s a very funny script, too, eliciting much hearty laughter from the crowd on opening night. So grab a lawn chair or a blanket and see some unusual theater in an unusual setting. There’s a lot of food for thought to chew on here. It’s an interesting quartet of characters with which to share a sunset. Highly recommended.