Working Class Theatre’s Standing on Ceremony

standing on

Working Class Theatre’s first offering for 2014, Standing on Ceremony: The Gay Marriage Plays, is a fast-paced, mostly-charming, often-moving collection of eight one-acts. First produced in California in 2009 as a celebration of national progress on gay marriage — and a reminder of how far we’ve yet to go — Standing on Ceremony contains some of the most refreshingly-contemporary material staged in Taos in a long time.

The plays manage to be mostly un-pedantic, although most scenes contain a distinct element of preaching to the choir — then again, if you’re someone who opposes gay marriage, I don’t expect you’ll be jumping at the chance to catch a show subtitled The Gay Marriage Plays. From two men revising traditional marriage vows to be culturally and politically “appropriate” (with Mose Renault and William Hall); to two female police officers recounting the story of their wedding day (extra sweetness added because the actors are Karen Paull and her real-life wife Wendy Robbins — although I didn’t ask, I strongly suspect it’s a copy of their actual marriage license used as a prop in the scene); through a Jewish Liberal Democratic mother (a hilarious Marci Kipnis) in New York attempting to one-up her friends by ensuring that her son out-gays them all, the show skips lightheartedly through just about every gay and lesbian joke and piece of commentary you can think of — including opinions from those on the other side of the aisle.

There are also some lovely serious moments, offering up some subtle (and not-so-subtle) reminders that we haven’t exactly reached the mountaintop just yet. Since creator Brian Shnipper launched the project in California in 2008, it’s been through many productions and gained a lot of followers along the way, including a diverse group of writers eager to participate — to date, about 25 writers have contributed to the project. The Taos production features material from seven award-winning writers, including Pulitzer Prize winners Moises Kaufman and Doug Wright, Tony award nominee Neil LaBute, and Obie winners Paul Rudnick and Mo Gaffney.

Directed by Karen Paull, David Garver, and WCT’s artistic director Ron Usherwood, the show features 14 Taos actors — some very familiar, some more-or-less new to the stage. In a strong ensemble, there are several truly standout performances in this production.

Adam Overley and Stephen Mondragon tackle Neil LaBute’s poignant “Strange Fruit,” my favorite piece from the show, with tremendous depth and grace; Usherwood’s direction is especially deft with these two young men. The piece is staged simply, a bare set, with one square of light for each man. On opening night, the theatre became pin-drop still as the piece progressed. Although they never speak to or look at each other, the bond between them is palpable.  Overley, a familiar face on Taos stages (and extremely well-cast in this role) turns in an expectedly-excellent performance — his Jerry is by turns funny, sweet, and deeply moving. Relative-newcomer Mondragon is a delightful revelation in this scene, delivering quietly-savvy humor and emotion. I fully expect we’ll see more of him in shows to come. **NOTE: Shortly after penning the previous paragraph, I learned that Mondragon has dropped out of the play in advance of the upcoming weekend. Unfortunate news — except that WCT is lucky to have as a company member the talented Kristian Moore, who will be stepping into his role for the show’s second weekend.

Comedic props go to Dancer Dearing as Christian anti-gay-marriage activist Mary Abigail Carstairs-Sweetbuckle in Paul Rudnick’s brilliant “The Gay Agenda.” Carstairs-Sweetbuckle is a member of organizations including Focus on the Family, Family First, “the Traditional Family Delta Force” and “the Aryan Family Freedom Fighters.” Dearing, seen often backstage but rarely onstage, deploys tremendous comic aplomb through Mary Abigail’s sincerely earnest struggle to make us understand that the gays — who have taken everything else — simply can’t be allowed to take marriage, too.

Oh, and comedic honorable-mention must be extended to Taos-stage newcomer Liz Burns for truly excellent delivery of a few crucial lines in the scene “On Facebook,” as the one lesbian involved in the conversation (notably “I’m looking for an emoticon that says ‘go fuck your bad self,’ but I can’t seem to find it…”). Incidentally, that scene is one of those “if you’re not into gay marriage, this is probably not the play for you” reminders, wherein the primary dissenting character Beverly (a great performance by Naomi Hannah) is a Fox News-watching, USA Today and Christian Science Monitor-reading facebook commenter who loves her “gay friends” but simply doesn’t agree with gay marriage (smiley face)! “On Facebook,” by Doug Wright, is another highlight of the show — purportedly he just adapted a real facebook thread for the scene, which is both hilarious and tragic given some of the turns the conversation takes.

And, in a case of Art imitating Life (or is it the other way ’round?), Mose Renault’s touching delivery of Moises Kaufman’s beautifully-written London Mosquitos offers a great deal of honest personal loss to the words of his character’s eulogy to his partner of 46 years. Mose lost his own partner of many years to cancer some time ago, and opening weekend was an anniversary of that loss; the pure emotion he brought to the scene was a sweet accent to some of the show’s best writing. Kaufman, like LaBute, explores some of the more complex aspects of where we currently stand as a society in regards to our acceptance of same-sex relationships. Mose’s character recounts proposing to his partner when he falls ill; his partner says no, arguing that marrying so late in their relationship discounts their whole history — if they celebrate a wedding anniversary a year from this proposal, what does that say about the last 45 years they were together? That they were just “fooling around?”

It’s been said that “when their mouths are open with laughter, we pour the truth down their throats,” and the better parts of Standing on Ceremony go straight to that place — yes, there’s wonderful humor in the writing (and performances), but let’s not forget what there still is to accomplish before equality is an assumed cornerstone of our society.

Standing on Ceremony receives sincere LiveTaos commendations as a must-catch show this weekend. The best part about one-act collections like this one? If you’re not wild about a particular scene, it’ll be over soon, and there’ll be something completely different in its wake. Don’t wait til closing night, as we’re sure it’ll sell out by then! **UPDATE #2: Saturday night is now sold out! Call to reserve your seats for Thursday and Friday…

Working Class Theatre presents
Standing on Ceremony: The Gay Marriage Plays
March 27, 28, and 29, 7:00PM
$10 at the door or call 575-613-2069