By Bryson David Hoff
A Monday-night press show in which the crowd is overwhelmingly straight, sober and over the age of 50 is probably not the ideal environment to see a show like BITE: A Pucking Queer Cabaret, particularly for an audience member who identifies as a fairly well-informed ally, but still not a member of the LGBT community from whose culture the play draws.
That being said, this latest offering from Pride Films and Plays is full of enough heart and exuberance to stand on its own legs, regardless of the audience.
The piece is a riff on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and follows the same basic plot structure: The relationship squabbles of Fairy King Oberon and Queen Titania during the summer solstice lead to complications for a quartet of mortals embroiled in a love triangle.
The difference here, beside the genders of the characters involved, is that, though the show is definitely not light on laughs, the character conflict is taken seriously and given a weight that is lacking in most productions of Shakespeare’s original. The motivations, both of the mortal lovers and the quarreling fairies, are set out in contemporary and humanizing terms that make their situations both dramatically specific and instantly relatable for the 20-to-30-something crowd toward whom the piece is targeted.
That’s not to say that the show is flippant with the history it invokes. There are not only enough sly references to Shakespeare’s text to make a classics nerd giggle, but Director/Adapter Derek Van Barham also recognizes that by writing a play dealing with the importance of community to queer-identifying individuals in the 21st century, he is drawing on a rich theatrical tradition of gay-themed plays. Though they are subtle, one can catch hints of Terrence McNally in the way that the mortal characters try to articulate the non-sexual needs that their sexual desires attempt to fulfill; of Harvey Fierstein in the way that the fairies’ dialogue uses humor as both mask and vehicle for serious thought; and of John Cameron Mitchell in the just-north-of-realism staging and rock concert aesthetic.
That aesthetic, helped along by Brad Caleb Lee’s tasteful yet vibrant costume and set design, is perfectly fitting for the vocal stylings of the cast. Despite the traditional musical theatre pedigrees of most of the ensemble, what comes out on stage is pure contemporary pop, which is exactly what is called for to keep the music from becoming too camp, as is the pitfall of two many musical theatre pieces that draw from pre-existing popular music for the score.
There’s not a weak link to be found in the cast, however special accolades must be awarded to Kevin Webb’s Oberon, whose powerful yet expertly controlled tenor absolutely soars in his renditions of Years & Years’ “King” and The Scissor Sisters’ “She’s My Man,” as well as to Raymond K. Cleveland’s Titania, who, after spending the bulk of the evening doing drag-show lip-sync, delivers an incredibly rich and tender rendition of “Dream A Little Dream of Me.”
Also worthy of praise is Van Barham and Christopher Young’s choreography, which is simple enough not to pull focus from the strength of the vocal work, yet expertly crafted to show off the athleticism of the cast. Stand out moments include Caitlin Aase’s electrically choreographed and executed mid-show strip-tease to a jazz-ified version of Britney Spears’s “Toxic” and the ensemble’s post-modern slow-dance to Little Big Town’s “Girl Crush.”
If there is any fault to be found in the musical execution, it is probably due to the technical limitations of the space, which is primarily a nightlife venue. For instance, the musical duel between Titania and Oberon toward the beginning of the show loses some of its punch due to Titania’s lip-sync track being at the same level as the musical backing track, giving her less vocal presence when compared to Oberon, who is singing live into a handheld mic. This is a minor quibble, however, and an issue that did not reoccur at any other point in the evening.
The strong work of the ensemble, as musicians, actors and dancers, resonates with the thematic core that the play is centered around: The need for community, not as a solution to the problems of life and love, but as a life-raft to endure the rapids the world puts in your path. This support network is of vital to the survival of all human beings, of course, but especially to the LGBTQ community, particularly as recent events have proved that the federal legalization of gay marriage does not mean the struggle for acceptance is over.
Though the music and mise-en-scène may gear toward the current generation, the message is universal and is wrapped up in a package that is honest without being cynical, sweet without being saccharine, and celebratory in its inclusiveness.
Pride Films and Plays presents, “BITE: A Pucking Queer Cabaret,” Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 7 pm and Sundays at 5 pm through August 14 (additional industry night performance scheduled on August 1 at 7 pm; no performance August 7) . More information and tickets ($25 – $35 with discounts available for students and seniors) are available here.