Two theater directors currently working in Chicago are on a mission. Their goal: To expose audiences to plays that they both feel are wrongfully neglected and to rethink playwrights who have been pigeonholed.
Out director Bonnie Metzgar is doing her part to highlight the satiric and subversive feminist work of the collective known as The Five Lesbian Brothers by staging the Chicago premiere of their 1994 off-Broadway comedy The Secretaries, for About Face Theatre. Meanwhile, director Anne Kauffman wants to change perceptions of the late lesbian playwright Lorraine Hansberry by staging her 1964 Broadway drama The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window in a high-profile production at the Goodman Theatre.
"I've known The Five Lesbian Brothers all through their career," said Metzgar, reflecting upon her own New York theater origins before moving to Chicago to become About Face's artistic director from 2008 to 2013. ( Metzgar is also finishing out as interim artistic director for American Theater Company before handing off the job to Will Davis. )
Consisting of the writer/performers Maureen Angelos, Babs Davy, Dominque Dibbell, Peg Healy and Lisa Kron ( a recent Tony winner for co-authoring the hit Broadway musical Fun Home ), The Five Lesbian Brothers collaborated on many plays starting in the late 1980s before their final collaboration in 2005 called Oedipus in Palm Springs.
"They should be considered part of the cannon of American dramatic literature," said Metzgar, likening the works of The Five Lesbian Brothers to the better-known gay camp creations of the late Charles Ludlam and The Ridiculous Theatre Company.
"Probably because [The Five Lesbian Brothers] did originate all these parts and they're so identified them, we don't think of their text as really great plays," Metzgar said. "So I'm excited to have a group of professional actors work on this text, because it can stand up against any of Charles Ludlam's plays."
Set in 1993, The Secretaries pokes fun at extreme feminist activism and also how the media was bombarding women with dieting products at the time. Metzgar also added that there's a heavy influence of David Lynch's TV series Twin Peaks on the play's tone.
"It's a secretarial pool at a lumber mill, and it's absurdist in that they have a club that all the secretaries belong to and once a monthon the event of having their menstrual periodsthey secretly kill a lumberjack," Metzgar said. "As like a sacrificial killing, that is all the energy they store up because they withhold so much from themselves" because they can't eat due to their strict dieting routines.
Although The Five Lesbian Brothers' work has been well-respected in New York, their plays aren't as well-known or produced around the country on the level of their 1980s and '90s LGBTQ contemporaries like Terrence McNally or Paul Rudnick. By staging The Secretaries for About Face, Metzgar hopes to do her part in changing that perception around.
Although not a lesbian, director Anne Kauffman has said she loves the collaborative works of The Five Lesbian Brothers. That's due in part to her own involvement in another New York writing/performing theater collective known as The Civilians.
But now Kauffman is making a case for The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window, which closed on Broadway just days before Hansberry's 1965 death from cancer. The Sign… confounded many audiences at the time because it was so different from Hansberry's monumentally acclaimed African-American family drama A Raisin in the Sun.
"[The Sign…] was ahead of its times in a lot of ways. One of the things that I think was difficult for critics and certain members of the audience was that Lorraine Hansberry was writing about white people," Kauffman said. "I think it's still true today that we ghettoize our writers of color by thinking that they should only be writing about race."
There were also issues of Hansberry's writing experiments in form and style for the creation of The Sign… It stretches to embrace both realism and absurdism, which Kauffman feels would be seen as post-modern by today's audiences.
Set in the early 1960s in New York's bohemian neighborhood of Greenwich Village, The Sign… focuses on the contentious relationship between the title writer character and his struggling actress wife, Iris, as they get swept up in the radical and social issues of the day.
"It's about a married couple who is growing apart without noticing it," Kauffman said. "That emotional personal core is what initially drew me to the piece,"
Also in the mix is an abrasive gay playwright, an African-American activist and a moralizing politician whose speechifying Kauffman says is unfortunately relevant in light of the current U.S. presidential primaries.
"[At the play's core] is a call for actiona call for commitment and recommitment," Kauffman said. "Socially, politically and personally, I think Lorraine is telling the story of a marriage where they have to actually recommit to one another and fight for what they want and what they believe in."
The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window continues through Sunday, June 5, at the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St. Previews continue through Sunday, May 8, with an official press opening 7 p.m. Monday, May 9. Tickets are $25-$75; call 312-443-3800 or visit GoodmanTheatre.org .
About Face Theatre's Chicago premiere of The Secretaries by The Five Lesbian Brothers plays from Friday, May 6, through Sunday, June 12, at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave. Preview tickets are $20 and $10 for seniors and students. Regular-run performances are $35 ( $20 for students and seniors ). For more information, call 773-975-8150 or visit AboutFaceTheatre.org .